Dozens of rare British Spitfire fighter planes buried in Myanmar during World War II are to be dug up under an agreement between the government and an aviation enthusiast.
The iconic single-seat aircraft are believed to have been hidden -- unassembled in crates -- by the former colonial power to prevent them falling into Japanese hands almost seven decades ago.
There could be as many as 140 of the aircraft buried in the country formerly known as Burma, according to a local geophysicist who has been involved in the search since 1999.
"In the first year, we will dig up 60 aircraft," Soe Thein told AFP, adding that work to retrieve them would start next month. "The next year in the second phase, I expect to dig up another 50."
Based on a survey of hundreds of witnesses, the team plans to dig in various locations including in Yangon, northern Kachin state and central Mandalay.
If successfully excavated, some of the Spitfires are expected to be returned to Britain, which ruled Myanmar until independence in 1948 but was temporarily forced out of much of the country in 1942 by invading Japanese forces.
"We want to strengthen relations between Britain and our country and benefit millions of people in the world who want to see Spitfires," said local businessman Htoo Htoo Zaw who is involved in the project.
The project is the result of more than a decade of searching former airforce bases in Myanmar by British farmer and aviation aficionado David Cundall using radar technology.
"I'm only a small farmer, I'm not a multi-millionaire and it has been a struggle. It took me more than 15 years but I finally found them," Cundall told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph earlier this year.
"Spitfires are beautiful aeroplanes and should not be rotting away in a foreign land. They saved our neck in the Battle of Britain and they should be preserved," he added.
"They were just buried there in transport crates," Cundall said. "They were waxed, wrapped in greased paper and their joints tarred. They will be in near perfect condition."
About 20,000 Spitfires were built by Britain from 1938-1948. The planes captured the public imagination during the Battle of Britain when the Royal Air Force prevented the German Luftwaffe from invading in 1940.
Today just a few dozen are still in flying condition.
An agreement on retrieving the historic planes was signed by a transport ministry senior official with Cundall and Htoo Htoo Zaw in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday.
The British government welcomed the agreement, which follows the personal intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron, who discussed the Spitfires with President Thein Sein during his visit to Myanmar earlier this year.
The signing "marks an important step towards uncovering, restoring and displaying these fighter planes, and perhaps even seeing some of the aircraft gracing the skies of Britain in the future," an embassy spokesperson said.
According to the agreement, the Myanmar government will own half of the airplanes while Cundall will take 30 percent and Htoo Htoo Zaw's company Shwe Taung Por the remaining 20 percent, Soe Thein said.
"We don't have to give the planes to the Myanmar government but will calculate the total value of the planes and give them cash. We'll still need to give a plane to the government to keep in a museum," he added.
by Park Chan-Kyong Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Oct 18, 2012