A Belgian toxicological adviser to the UN alleged this week that Serb forces used nerve gas against Kosovo Albanians. But some other experts are dismissing the claim as "unlikely." RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge reports from London:
London, 26 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Belgian professor Aubin Heyndrickx alleges that 20 Kosovo Albanians were "intoxicated" by BZ gas, or a similar chemical agent, by Serb shelling in Kosovo earlier this year. BZ gas is a hallucinogen that is disorienting and is occasionally fatal.
Heyndrickx told the latest edition of Britain's respected Jane's Defence Weekly that he collected evidence of the alleged BZ gas attacks in Kosovo in May during the NATO bombing campaign against Serb forces.
He says the victims were Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighters who were sent to hospitals in France, Germany and Switzerland after showing symptoms of toxic chemical contamination. He says other victims are still being treated in hospitals within Kosovo.
Heyndrickx, a toxicological advisor to the UN since 1984, is director of the International Reference University Laboratories in Belgium, made up of academic specialists who investigate and report on allegations of chemical and biological attacks worldwide.
He also alleges that Serb forces have used nerve agents, including sarin, in Kosovo since the early 1990s, affecting about 4,000 ethnic Albanians, mainly children. He said he voiced concern at the time to UN, NATO and the European Commission but no-one was interested.
Heyndrickx told RFE/RL that he examined some of the victims of the latest alleged Serb gas attacks.
"In the middle of April, I was called by the UCK, the medical officer in charge, to come over to (the Albanian capital) Tirana because they had some patients over there who they thought were intoxicated, Kosovo, UCK soldiers. So we went down there, different colleagues, and physicians and myself. We started the analysis of blood and urine at the Tirana medical hospital and also at the secret UCK hospital at Tirana."
Heyndrickx said the first tests ruled out poisoning by organic phosphates, or the so-called nerve gases such as sarin. But further tests suggested the sick troops had been affected by BZ gas or a similar chemical agent. Moreover, known antidotes did not work. "We came to the group of BZ, the anticapacitant agents, where we could find directly the clinical symptoms, intoxicated in the central nerve system, I mean, the brain and so on. We tried to use all kind of pharmaceuticals, also the NATO antidotes, but they didn't work. And instead of getting better, they (the patients) got worse." Heyndrickx believes some of the victims have died, but does not know how many. On several trips to the Balkans, he also examined samples of Serb artillery shells brought to Tirana from Kosovo.
Heyndrickx is a well-known figure to biological and chemical warfare experts. In 1984, he was invited to Iran by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to investigate reports of Iraqi gas attacks on Iranian troops. He was also called in by Japanese authorities after the sarin gas attack by an extremist cult on the Tokyo metro.
But John Eldridge, who is a former British naval expert on nuclear, biological and chemical defence, says he doubts Heyndrickx's conclusion that Serb forces used nerve gas in Kosovo.
"Professor Heyndrickx has a strong reputation in being around these sort of incidents. He was in Iraq before the whole situation (Gulf War) blew up, and he has certainly got a reputation. However, he does have a vested interest in playing up a lot of these things because a lot of the people he deals with are very much human rights people who are very keen to point this up in an alarmist way. That's my personal view. I mean, it could be that they (the Serbs) did use it, but it certainly wasn't used in any coordinated way."
Eldridge, who left the Royal Navy in 1992, is now editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence journal, run by the same publishing group that publicized Heyndrickx's claims this week.
He says the use of chemical weapons requires a coherent and coordinated command structure -- something that was lacking in the Serbs' "opportunistic" campaign against the Kosovar Albanians.
He also says the environment in modern warfare is highly toxic and this might have led to a conclusion that nerve gas was used.
Eldridge says Belgrade had a comprehensive plan, like most former communist regimes, to research, create and stockpile chemical weapons. The Serbs are widely believed to have received assistance from Iraq, which Yugoslav officials visited on several occasions, according to Jane's Defence Weekly. But Eldridge says a large part of its stockpile was destroyed in the early 1990s.
Still Eldridge is keeping an open mind. While unconvinced by the Heyndrickx's claims about nerve gas in Kosovo, he also says, in his words, "here am I sitting in an armchair, and he actually went out there. So it would be wrong of me to gainsay what he did."