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Uzbekistan: Discovery Of Gases At Coalition Base Raises Questions

Traces of nerve and mustard gas were found at Uzbekistan's Khanabad air base last weekend. The base was being used by U.S.-led coalition forces participating in the campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. Many troops were evacuated until further testing can be done. The discovery raises questions about why the gas was there in the first place, what the danger from it is now, and where else it might be found.

Prague, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Traces of nerve and mustard gas were detected at the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan over the weekend. The base is being used by soldiers from the United States and other countries in the fight against international terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. The base has been partially evacuated since testing showed signs of the gases were present.

The discovery raises questions about why these chemical weapons were there in the first place, what the current dangers are, if any, and where else such chemicals might be found. The answer to the latter question is especially important, since coalition forces are also based in the former Soviet states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. Colonel Roger King, a spokesman for allied forces in Afghanistan, said traces of the gases were found at three locations at the Khanabad air base. He said no soldiers have reported any symptoms of exposure.

The Uzbek government says the gas is left over from the Soviet era. Yesterday, however, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force, General Viktor Kholstov, said it is "out of the question" that Soviet troops could have left any war gas in Uzbekistan. Khanabad was one of several bases in Uzbekistan used as the staging ground for the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The finding of the gas is being downplayed by U.S. military and Uzbek government officials, although further testing will be done.

Mark Kramer is the director of Harvard University's Cold War Studies Project and is considered one of the leading authorities on the Soviet and Russian military.

The U.S. military says the gases released may be the residue from small spills that occurred in the past and that went undetected because of the cooler weather at the time that U.S. forces started using the Khanabad base. The logic is that summer temperatures are causing the residue to vaporize. Kramer said this scenario is unlikely.

"I tend to doubt that because, over time, the residue would have dissipated. It does convert into gas and dissipate over time. So there would have been releases of mustard and nerve gas there, but they would have occurred quite some time ago, and there really wouldn't be residue left," Kramer said.

Kramer said the recent detection of the gases probably means there are chemical weapons buried at the base, most likely deep underground. He dismissed the fears of some coalition forces that the gas may have been put there by terrorists. "I do very much doubt that these chemicals are coming from anything that was put there recently, be it from the Afghan government under the Taliban or from Al-Qaeda terrorists or any others who may have been present in Uzbekistan, since we do know that there are Al-Qaeda terrorists who have operated there," Kramer said.

In addition to Uzbekistan, coalition forces are also stationed in two other neighboring former Soviet republics, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kramer said there are worries that coalition troops in these countries could also be exposed to such gases. "It's conceivable that you will find traces of chemical weapons at other bases. Soviet storage facilities for chemical weapons were never fully pinned down. Presumably, there is documentation at the Russian Defense Ministry that would shed light on this. And I'm sure there are contacts going on right now with the Russian authorities to try to figure out where some of these chemicals were stored," Kramer said.

Most of the troops stationed at Khanabad had transferred to bases in Afghanistan before the discovery of the gases last weekend. But if there are, indeed, chemical weapons buried deep in the ground at Khanabad, might there also be similar weapons buried in Afghanistan? Kramer also found this scenario unlikely. "As far as the possibility of having [chemical weapons] buried there [in Afghanistan], I tend to be doubtful, mainly because Soviet positions in Afghanistan were vulnerable, and [the Soviets] tended to be averse to having weapons left in a position where guerrillas could seize them," Kramer said.

Despite denials from the Russian military that the chemicals could have come from Soviet stockpiles, not everyone is convinced of that. The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" gave those who oppose the U.S. military presence in Central Asia a bit of an opportunity to gloat when it wrote yesterday that "the Soviet military machine has finally caught up with the Americans at the former Soviet airfield in Khanabad."

(Akram Faisullo of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)