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Helsinki Watch Says Chemical Weapons in Former Yugoslavia

Washington, 28 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An international human rights organization says it has uncovered evidence that some of the republics of the former Yugoslavia possess and continue to maintain offensive chemical weapons that could trigger a regional arms race and help to reignite the war in the Balkans.

The report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was released today. It is entitled "Clouds of War, Chemical Weapons in the Former Yugoslavia."

The report points to what it says is newly discovered evidence indicating that the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) had an extensive and sophisticated chemical weapons program in place before the breakup of the country in 1991.

It says the evidence includes an army manual offering doctrinal guidelines on the use of certain chemical weapons, as well as classified western intelligence assessments and other documents that the report says confirm the existence of such weapons in the region.

The report says that after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the present army of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- which includes Serbia and Montenegro -- inherited much of the JNA chemical weapons program and continues today to maintain that chemical weapons capability.

However, the report says chemical weapons capability is not limited only to that region. It says the army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina also produced what it says were crude chemical weapons during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. The report says the Bosnian government produced munitions filled with toxic chemicals at a factory near the city of Tuzla.

The report says, however, that for the moment the Bosnian government seems to have halted its production of chemical munitions. It also adds that it has no evidence to suggest that Croatia has a chemical weapons program.

The report is highly critical of the U.S. government, saying officials have been "fully aware" of the existence of chemical weapons in the former Yugoslavia, but are "reluctant" to publicly disclose the information.

Joost Hiltermann, director of the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki project says "Telling the truth about the presence of chemical weapons in the former Yugoslavia would be a vital and effective first step to eliminating them." He adds "It is essential that people be fully informed of the presence of chemical weapons in the former Yugoslavia, given that international forces are stationed there."

A U.S. State Department official who insisted on anonimity told RFE/RL that it is common knowledge the army of the former Yugoslavia had a chemical weapons capability. But the official declined to comment specifically on the Human Rights Watch report.

The human rights organization says it wants the international community to withhold aid and impose sanctions on all states in the region who refuse to abandon the chemical weapons they possess. It also insists that any governments or international organizations in possession of information about the development, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons in the area should release it for public examination.