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Yugoslavia: NATO's Use Of Depleted Uranium Suspected In Balkan Syndrome

  • Jolyon Naegele

Individual NATO member states are conducting their own tests in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina to determine if soldiers stationed there were exposed to possible health risks posed by ammunition incorporating depleted uranium. Several peacekeepers have been diagnosed with leukemia since serving in the Balkans and concern is growing the controversial ammunition, which was used extensively in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Serbia, is to blame. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports world leaders remain skeptical of Pentagon assurances that no link has been established between the controversial ammunition and incidents of cancer.

Prague, 8 January (RFE/RL) -- Individual NATO member states are testing soil, water and air samples from Kosovo and Bosnia and their personnel who served in the Balkans in a bid to determine if depleted uranium tipped shells pose a cancer risk.

A depleted uranium shell contains a four-kilogram rod of solid depleted uranium which makes the shell dense and hard enough to cut through concrete and steel, burning on impact and creating dust and tiny fragments. The material gives off relatively low levels of radiation, but this can be dangerous if ingested or inhaled.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has promised to compile a list of sites that the alliance targeted with depleted uranium ammunition.

NATO in 1999 warned countries that sent peacekeepers and aid workers to Bosnia and Kosovo of the possible dangers to health caused by depleted uranium ammunition.

Seven Italian soldiers, five Belgians, two Dutchmen, two Spaniards, a Portuguese, and a Czech peacekeeper have died from leukemia and possibly other cancers since returning from Bosnia or Kosovo.

NATO's top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, and the EU's political and security committee, will hold separate meetings tomorrow to discuss what has come to be called the "Balkan Syndrome."

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said last week the U.S. Defense Department has not found any link between the illnesses and exposure to depleted uranium.

"The first thing that's necessary if we're dealing with allegations that there is a connection between leukemia and depleted uranium is an epidemiological study that would determine first if there is an unusually high incidence of leukemia among soldiers who have served in either Bosnia or Kosovo."

Bacon says until epidemiological comparisons are made it would premature to talk about a link between depleted uranium and leukemia.

But the UN's chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, today asked the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Gro Harlem Brundtland, to help set up an international team of experts to look into the issue of the possible link between leukemia and depleted uranium munitions.

Kouchner's request comes just days after WHO issued a statement in Pristina noting that it had conducted an initial survey showing that the incidence of leukemia in Kosovo has not increased since the 78-day NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia.

A team of scientists of the United Nations Environmental Program was sent to Kosovo in November to study 11 sites out of 112 places where depleted uranium was dropped.

UN spokeswoman Susan Manuel tells RFE/RL that the team noticed higher than normal radiation right around where the depleted uranium tipped ammunition hit eight sites in western and southern Kosovo.

"The team said the radiation level wasn't terribly high, but it was higher than normal and at that time they warned that the civilian population should stay away from those sites. At the same time we have to say there has been no proven link between depleted uranium and cancer or leukemia. However, we have to err on the side of caution and keep the population away from the sites and clean up the sites."

Manuel says the UN is interviewing doctors around Kosovo. She says there is no scientific way of measuring an increase in leukemia but, so far, she says, doctors say they have not noticed any increase.

"Since the depleted uranium scare in the international press, WHO and the department of public health went to Pristina hospital to look at the incoming records of patients over the last four years. There has been no increase of leukemia or cancer over those four years. There was a slight decrease in 2000."

Manuel says more scientific ways of evaluating the situation will be implemented in the coming weeks and that the final results of the team's analysis will be issued by early March. But she notes that study will not show whether the radiation has caused illness or could cause illness.

Moderate Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova says he believes the current campaign is a continuation of attempts by the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic to discredit NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Rugova said after meeting last Thursday with Italian Deputy Defense Minister Marco Miniti that they agreed that research should be carried out to prove this "propaganda" wrong.

And the Kosovar co-chairman of the UN-joint administration's health department in Kosovo, Pleurat Sejdiu, terms the allegations of a link between leukemia and NATO missiles "speculation."

"Kosovo doctors deny there is any link between the NATO bombardment and illness among civilians. This is a very short term for this kind of pathology to develop."

Western leaders are equally cautious about linking the cancer deaths to the depleted uranium weaponry. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed his concern in talks in Moscow over the weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Schroeder says he has "a healthy skepticism" about ammunition that would endanger one's own soldiers when it is fired.

"First of all, I consider it questionable to use munitions that present a considerable threat to the user. The full extent has to be thoroughly explained."

Schroeder was in Hannover today for talks with Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson. Sweden holds the European Union's rotating presidency. As Schroeder puts it: "we want frank information about where the ammunition was used and with what consequences. We want to know if there are connections between these cases of illness and the use of this ammunition."

Several countries with peacekeepers in the Balkans, including Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, and Bulgaria, are screening military and civilian personnel who served in the Balkans since 1996. Britain and Germany have decided not to conduct the tests on the grounds that depleted uranium does not pose a significant health risk.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov today called for an independent international inspection of Kosovo to ascertain the degree of contamination by depleted uranium-tipped ammunition used during the 78-day campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. He says measures should be taken to eliminate the danger, and he expressed concern for the fate of Russian peacekeepers in the province.

Several countries have sent their own experts to Kosovo to take samples of soil, air, and water to determine radiation levels. In a sign of possible distrust of assurances by NATO and the U.S., Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Guterres said in Lisbon: "we want our own information, based on our own tests."

Kosovo was not the only place where NATO used depleted uranium-tipped weapons during the 78-day campaign in 1999. The neighboring Presevo Valley of southern Serbia was also targeted.

The Yugoslav Army says it has not registered any incidence of illnesses related to depleted uranium.

Colonel Milan Zaric is the commander of the Yugoslav Army's Department for atomic, biological, and chemical defense.

"So far, we have examined more than 1,000 servicemen who we suspect were in the danger zone. We have not confirmed that there was contamination from depleted uranium."

The head of the Belgrade cancer clinic, Dr. Slobodan Cikaric, tells RFE/RL there has been no recent rise in the incidence of leukemia or other cancer-related illnesses in Yugoslavia. Cikaric says it usually takes between two and five years for leukemia to develop, and that the illness can last for a decade.

Serbian Deputy Minister for Environmental Protection Dragan Veselinovic says that while there was no immediate danger from the depleted uranium, over time it could pose a danger to people.

"On the territory of Serbia, you have in the area of Vranje, Bujanovac and so on, sites where uranium has been found. These have been fenced off. According to the information I have, federal organs are at the site and will take the radioactive material to institutes at Vinca and on the Gulf of Kotor, where uranium is processed."

Jovan Djukanovic, spokesman for Bujanovac municipality in the Presevo Valley, says all locations with radiation have been confirmed, clearly marked and the local population informed in detail about the possible consequences of coming into contact with depleted uranium. "As long as citizens obey the warnings and stay out of the marked places, there will be no danger to public health."

But our reporter in Bujanovac says that while Interior Ministry troops have marked off one site near Vranje, three other sites in the Presevo Valley: Reljan, Samoljica, and Borovac, have not yet been analyzed for radioactivity or sealed off.

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