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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Villagers Fear Radar Casts Spell Of Death

GABALA, Azerbaijan -- Alovshad Alimamedov kneels in the snow beside a tiny, unmarked grave. He is 48, but his gnarled features give the impression he is much older.

Four of his five children are buried here, he says. Not one of them reached his fifth birthday. Theirs is not the only miniature gravestone in this overgrown cemetery. Most of the tombs here belong to babies and children.

Behind Alimamedov, up on the hill, an ugly, gray 16-story hulk throws its shadow across the graveyard.

"People say that it's the radar station that's causing all the deaths," he says, pointing toward the hill. "How can we know?"

The Gabala radar station, used by the Russians to detect missile movement in the Southern Hemisphere, is on the agenda for Azeri President Haidar Aliyev's three-day visit to Moscow starting Thursday.

Aliyev is also expected to bring up in his talks with President Vladimir Putin the status of the Caspian Sea, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region and the poor living conditions of the estimated 2 million Azeris residing in Russia.

However, it is the radar station that concerns residents of Gabala, a rundown town of 85,000 located about 250 kilometers from Baku in the mountains of northern Azerbaijan.

Azeri Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbaso said Wednesday that a 10-year lease on the station at a cost of more than $100 million will be one of eight accords signed during Aliyev's visit, Reuters reported.

Russia and Azerbaijan have been in negotiations about the status of the station since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has said it will not pay more than $2 million a year to use it.

The station, built in 1984, was the largest of three radar stations used by the Soviet Union to monitor ballistic missiles. One in Latvia has now been shut down, while the third still operates in Kazakhstan.

Moscow has continued using Gabala with its 300 Russian employees as part of its missile early warning system. On full power, the radar can detect missile movement anywhere from the Indian Ocean to the south Pacific.

Whether the electromagnetic waves generated by the radar station are the source of the town's ills is a matter of debate. Both the Azeri and Russian governments are tight-lipped about the matter, and personnel at the station refused to talk with reporters during a recent visit.

Some doctors and politicians in Gabala say there is no evidence to support the claim.

A 1992 report commissioned by the pre-Aliyev government found otherwise. Scientists noted that birth defects had quadrupled and illnesses of the nervous system and kidney diseases shot up eight times. More shocking still was that cancer rates among teenagers in Gabala stood at the highest of any region in Azerbaijan.

The results don't surprise residents in Gabala and nearby villages. Many of the residents of the neighboring village of Amili have had premature deaths in their families. Rovshan Sadygov says his 9-month-old son died last year. "I took him to the hospital in Baku, but they said there was nothing they could do for him," he says. "My other three children are ill. All their teeth have fallen out. My brother has lost four children -- how long can we go on like this?"

The 1992 report has been all but written off by the current government. Last year, a joint Russian-Azeri inquiry cleared the Gabala radar station of any blame, concluding that health was no worse than in other districts.

Eldeniz Yusubov, director of the Azeri Independent Ecological Research Center and a former government chief for the Gabala district, calls the report a joke. "They didn't do any research," he said. "A couple of commission members spent two or three hours in Gabala, but no one else went near the place. The current government is afraid of putting its foot down."

In the United States, the health risks of living near a radar station are taken very seriously. The American government also uses three radar stations to monitor ballistic missiles, although they are much smaller than those used by the Russians. In 1999, the Public Health Department in Massachusetts was asked to look at the health implications of exposure to the low-level radiation produced by the radar station at Cape Cod, after higher cancer rates were reported there than in the rest of the state. The report concluded that the amount of exposure to the radar should be limited and that a more extensive inquiry was urgently needed. The Pentagon has also ordered further inquiries.

In Gabala, residents are resigned that no more research will be done. Many say they would like to move away, but few can afford to. "The sad thing is that the Russians get transferred back home after two years," said Natiq Khamidov of the opposition Musavat party. "But we are condemned to live here until we die."