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Germany: Defense Minister Says No Evidence Uranium Weapons Cause Illness

  • Roland Eggleston

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping says there is no medical evidence to suggest German soldiers became ill from exposure to depleted uranium used in shells fired by NATO forces in Kosovo and Bosnia. Scharping says he is personally opposed to the use of such weapons -- not because of radiation from the weapons but because of the toxic dust they throw off on impact.

Munich, 9 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping denies that any German soldier has become ill because of the use of uranium-tipped ammunition in the Balkans, but he says he is personally opposed to the use of such ammunition.

Scharping's comments came in response to continuing reports about the possibility that some NATO troops contracted leukemia because of the use of ammunition incorporating depleted uranium. Such ammunition is used in air attacks on tanks because of its ability to penetrate armor.

According to reports, U.S. aircraft fired 31,000 rounds of ammunition using depleted uranium during the 1999 war in Kosovo and about 10,800 rounds in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.

In recent interviews with German newspapers and television, Scharping said German armed forces do not possess such weapons.

"The German armed forces do not use these weapons, and I personally am of the opinion that no state should use them."

Scharping says Germany will present its views today at a NATO meeting in Brussels and will make a personal report later this month to Germany's parliamentary defense committee (17 Jan).

In an interview published yesterday in the "Bild" newspaper, Scharping promised an exhaustive report. The newspaper quotes the minister as saying that "all the facts should be on the table -- but only the facts."

He says scientific evidence shows that radiation exposure from depleted uranium ammunition is practically nil. Scharping referred to a report prepared by the German military which says the radiation emitted by such ammunition in one year amounts to only a third of the dose to which an average citizen is exposed from natural sources. The report says radiation doses of that magnitude could not cause radiation injury.

Scharping said 118 German soldiers who served in the Balkans had been selected for a long-term study of the possible consequences. Until now there is no indication that their health has suffered.

The scare erupted when Italy launched an investigation into a possible link between depleted-uranium ammunition and about 30 cases of serious illness among soldiers who served in Kosovo when ground forces entered the region after the end of the NATO bombing campaign. Some had served earlier in Bosnia.

Italian reports say five of its soldiers died of leukemia after their Balkan service.

The Italian report was followed by another from France that four French soldiers who served in the Balkans after the bombing campaign were being treated for leukemia.

In Germany, a former soldier, Christian Buethe, told newspapers that he contracted leukemia in 1998 after serving in the Mostar region of Bosnia. In interviews over the weekend, Buethe, who is now 24, said he has recovered. The Defense Ministry says there is no evidence the man came into contact with the uranium ammunition.

The ministry notes that about 9,000 civilians in Germany out of a total population of about 80 million contract leukemia each year.

Another German soldier, who served in Kosovo after the end of the bombing campaign, died a year ago from meningitis. The Defense Ministry says there is no evidence that his illness was connected with his military service, but the man's parents have begun a legal action alleging the military failed to take precautions against meningitis.

In his interviews, Scharping emphasized his view that the real danger from using depleted uranium ammunition comes from the toxic dust which the shells throw off on impact. He suggested this was the source of the low-level radiation reported by United Nations inspectors at eight of the 11 impact sites they have studied.

"According to medical reports, the problem is not radiation from the weapon itself. A more difficult question for the future is how to deal with the toxic dust which can be inhaled."

In Germany, the reports of deaths of NATO soldiers have led to demands from the left for a ban on all uses of depleted uranium ammunition. A parliamentary deputy from the governing Social Democratic Party, Margot von Renesse, described the use of such ammunition as a "war crime." Another SPD deputy, Hermann Scheer, accused the government of not paying sufficient heed to reports on the risks of using such ammunition.

One of Germany's leading newspapers, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," yesterday warned against hysteria. It said it was unlikely democratically elected governments would use weapons that endanger their own troops. The newspaper also said it was "reasonable to suspect" that opponents of Western intervention in Kosovo were using the situation to try to win over public opinion against the war.