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Yugoslavia: UN Team Says NATO Bombs Caused Serious Environmental Problems

A 12-member UN team has just returned from a 10-day mission to Serbia to assess environmental damage from NATO's 11-week bombing campaign. Our UN correspondent Joe Lauria reports on the team's initial findings.

United Nations, 6 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The head of a UN environmental team says that NATO's bombing of Yugoslav industrial sites has contaminated the Danube River and groundwater in parts of Kosovo and Serbia, posing a health hazard at least for the next several years.

Pekka Haavisto is the former environment minister of Finland who now heads a Balkans task force for the UN Environmental Program. Haavisto told our correspondent at the United Nations that his team found that many of the NATO air strikes against targets in Serbia caused serious environmental damage and that such damage likely poses serious health consequences for the local population.

The UN findings come after a similar probe earlier this summer by the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). The REC -- a western-financed environmental watchdog group -- found hard data difficult to come by but supported the conclusion that NATO bombs had increased pollution in Yugoslavia.

The UN team last month visited 15 major industrial sites, waterways and areas heavily targeted during the 78 days of NATO air bombardment. NATO targeted a wide variety of sites, including fuel refineries, fertilizer plants and petrochemical units.

Haavisto said his team will return to the region again for two weeks at the end of this month. At that time, the team intends to take samples of sediment from the Danube River to gauge the extent of its contamination. The team will also look at the impact of the bombing on the region's biodiversity and the long-term health effects on the people of the region.

It intends to present its findings in a report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the end of September, who will then decide the next course of action.

Haavisto said it is too early to give figures on how many people are in danger. The team has already determined, however, that "a lot" of mercury, asbestos and other toxic substances have been found in the soil surrounding several of the industrial sites the team visited. Haavisto said these substances endanger the safety of the groundwater supply. He said his team took soil samples and is analyzing them.

He said his team's preliminary conclusions are that there are certain environmental and human health risks if immediate action is not taken. He noted that if the cleanup were to begin tomorrow, it would still take "several years" to complete.

U.S. President Bill Clinton has said Belgrade will not get one cent of reconstruction aid until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is removed from office. The U.S. has said it will only make humanitarian assistance available to Belgrade.

It is difficult to judge whether aid that would protect Yugoslav workers already rebuilding industrial sites contaminated by the bombing could be classified as humanitarian. Haavisto said he is aware of the political questions involved but that in his mind, it is common sense that something be done to avoid further environmental or health problems.

In May, in the midst of the alliance's bombing campaign, NATO blamed the "Serb lie machine" for claims by Belgrade that air strikes were inflicting serious environmental damage on the country.

NATO hasn't made any such claims recently, but Haavisto does admit that one of the problems facing the UN team is that many of the sites being studied had environmental problems before the war even began.

Haavisto said some local opposition officials in Serbia told his team that they have been waiting 10 years for such an environmental survey to be done. He said his team must differentiate between the problems caused by the Kosovo crisis and the region's previous environmental and health problems.