Jericho – Thousands of landmines at the site where many believe Jesus was baptised are to be removed during the next year, allowing eight churches to reclaim land sealed off since the 1970s.
The project, carried out by the international de-mining charity the Halo Trust along with the Israeli defence ministry, would cost around $3m and reopen thousands of square metres of territory, officials said.
The site is only a few hundred metres from where, according to biblical tradition, Jesus was baptised by his cousin John and where thousands of pilgrims come every year to submerge themselves in the water.
The majority of the mines were laid by Israeli forces after the Jewish state seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from Jordanian troops.
Other unexploded ordinance from both Israel and Jordan remains lodged in the ground, including around the churches – which were evacuated by Israel in the 1970s.
"We are looking to clear one million square metres and we estimate that in the ground we will come across 2 600 anti-tank mines and an unknown number of explosive remnants of war, which can mean mortars, shells, small arms munitions," said Ronen Shimoni, programme manager for the Halo Trust in the West Bank.
"In '67 Israel laid here the anti-tank mines as part of establishing the new border between Israel and Jordan. Monks were still living inside these churches," said Shimoni.
Later Israel closed the churches, fearing they would be used by Jordanian fighters.
Israel's control of the West Bank has never been recognised by the international community, which considers the land occupied Palestinian territory.
Shimoni said the project had been "granted approval of the Israelis, the Palestinians, the eight churches, and Jordan", stressing the Halo Trust was a neutral organisation.
Work has begun in the Ethiopian church, where diggers were clearing land on Thursday searching for potentially undiscovered ordinance.
The old churches at the site have already fallen into disrepair and Shimoni admitted there was a risk that setting off the mines could damage some of them further.
Shimoni said they needed a further $150 000 in funds to complete the work at the baptism site.
Britain's late Princess Diana walked through an Angolan minefield after it was cleared by the Halo Trust in 1997.
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