Originally created 01/09/01

Depleted uranium ammunition use questioned



STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- NATO and the European Union will hold separate meetings this week to discuss possible health threats posed by the depleted uranium ammunition that Western forces used in the Balkans, Sweden's defense minister said Monday.

But the minister, Bjoern von Sydow, cautioned against expecting quick answers to the question of whether ammunition containing depleted uranium is responsible for cancer cases among veterans of Balkans peacekeeping missions.

"It's not easy to find a definitive conclusion soon to this problem, but the process will start tomorrow," he said.

The issue was added to the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of the EU's political and security committee, said Von Sydow, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency. NATO's political committee also will discuss the issue Tuesday.

Depleted uranium, a radioactive material, was used in armor-piercing shells fired by NATO forces during the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The United States has denied there are any health risks from the ammunition, but scientists remain divided on the issue.

Renewed concerns arose in December after Italy announced an investigation into soldiers who have become ill since serving in the Balkans. Twelve have cancer and five have died of leukemia.

On Monday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called on NATO to release all available information on the use and effects of depleted uranium ammunition.

"We want frank information about where the ammunition was used and with what consequences," Schroeder said in Hanover, Germany, where he was meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson. He added, however, that he personally harbored a "healthy skepticism" that the ammunition caused the illnesses.

On Monday, Portugal began health tests on about 10,000 military and civilian personnel who have served in the Balkans since 1996. One Portuguese soldier has been diagnosed with cancer since returning from Kosovo.

In Greece, meanwhile, the military said Monday that it would withdraw depleted uranium ammunition from active use but was not yet pulling peacekeepers out of Kosovo.

Experts will be testing the soil and air around the Greek base in Urosevac, in southern Kosovo, and Greece's 1,500 army personnel will be withdrawn if they uncover a health risk, Defense Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos said. Up to 4,000 current and former Greek peacekeepers also will be screened following the confirmation that a sergeant who served in Bosnia is suffering from leukemia.

All Norwegian soldiers who have served abroad since 1990 -- about 20,000 troops -- also will be offered health checks, Norway's supreme defense command said Monday. Last week, two former officers said they developed cancer after serving in Bosnia.

Elsewhere Monday, Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan said his government would ask NATO whether unused bombs its planes dumped into the Adriatic during the 1999 bombing campaign contained depleted uranium.

The German Defense Ministry confirmed Sunday that in July 1999, NATO warned of possible dangers from depleted uranium ammunition in the Balkans and called for proper precautionary steps to be taken.

The Berliner Morgenpost newspaper reported Monday that it had obtained a document from the ministry dated July 16, 1999, stating that NATO had warned soldiers and aid workers of "possible toxic threat" and advised them to take "preventative measures." Despite that, the document said NATO planned no further moves itself, according to the newspaper.

The Berliner Zeitung newspaper Monday quoted the head of the U.N. Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, as criticizing NATO for not being more forthcoming with information about where it used the ammunition. Toepfer said the Western alliance had taken the stance "that investigation at these locations wasn't necessary anymore" and "that is very clearly not correct," the newspaper reported.

UNEP has visited 11 of 112 Kosovo sites identified by NATO as having been targeted with ordnance containing depleted uranium. It found higher radiation levels in eight locations. Final results from its study are not expected before March.