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A day trip to a crowded State Department office full of unfamiliar faces and smells might have upset some dogs, but then Astra's day job is itself pretty terrifying.

The seven-year-old German Shepherd mine-clearance expert ignored the defused weaponry arrayed on the conference table, but perked up when a box of donuts was opened.

Over the past five years she and her handler, Lebanese army sergeant Ahmad Solh, have scoured the battlefields of Lebanon for land-mines and unexploded bombs.

Named by anti-landmine group the Marshall Legacy Institute as the champion mine-clearers of the year, they came to the US capital to promote their work.

"I love her, I see her more than I see my family," said Solh, who has worked with Astra for five years seeking unexploded ordnance in communities scarred by war.

"I come home all the time and tell them stories about what we've done at work and they really enjoy hearing about her and the wonderful job she does."

In some Middle Eastern communities dogs and dog-handlers are shunned, but Solh said his fellow Lebanese honor the life-saving work he and his eager friend do.

Most of the mines that Astra locates were left during Lebanon's 1975-1991 civil war, but she also finds bombs dropped in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.





The Marshall Legacy Institute, working with the US State Department and private sponsors -- including individuals who adopt dogs -- has provided 205 dogs in 11 countries.

Astra learned her craft in Bosnia before being sent to Lebanon, and teams have worked in Afghanistan, Angola, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Thailand.

MLI president Perry Baltimore told reporters who came to meet Astra that Lebanon has now received 27 dogs under the program, bonded with human handlers.

"This is the top dog," he said of Astra, whom he also calls "Joan" on honor of the late US private citizen who sponsored her training and followed her progress.

In Lebanon, the State Department has spent $55 million in the past 17 years under its conventional weapons destruction program to support mine clearance. afp