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NATO Uranium Polluting Yugoslavia

Financial Times; London; Jul 22, 1999

 

Radioactive air pollution has been detected in some areas of Yugoslavia as a result of Nato's use of uranium-tipped shells during the Kosovo conflict, according to a report on the environmental impact of the 11-week military campaign.

Nato has confirmed that anti-tank shells fired by US Air Force Thunderbolt aircraft during the conflict each contained 275 grams of depleted uranium. This is a radioactive and chemically toxic material that, upon impact, may turn into a "mobile aerosol", says the study. US military regulations require that personnel wear protective clothing and masks when handling such ammunition.

The report describes depleted uranium as "perhaps the most dangerous" of the "carcinogenic and toxic substances" that were released during the bombing of industrial targets in Yugoslavia. "Many of the compounds released can cause miscarriages and birth defects, others are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases," says the report, which was prepared for the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest.

However, the head of a UN team of experts that has just begun to conduct field work in Yugoslavia, while confirming the dangers inherent in depleted uranium weapons, said alarming evidence of contamination had yet to be found. Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environment minister who chairs the Balkans Task Force of the United Nations environment programme, said the mission would provide the international community with "a neutral and scientifically credible report" on the situation as well as a costing of a short- and long-term environmental plan for the region.

The report is due in September, after a second mission in August that will focus on pollution of the Danube and the longer-term impact of the conflict on biological diversity and human health. Mr Haavisto said last week the team would also look at sites where depleted uranium weapons are alleged to have been used, to check for radioactivity and the presence of toxic heavy metals in the soil. The UN's confidential preliminary report described depleted uranium ammunition, used to attack tanks and underground bunkers, as "very dangerous and harmful".

The deployment of depleted uranium weapons during the Gulf war against Iraq has been linked by military veterans organisations in the US and UK to a host of ailments afflicting former servicemen, as well as to an increase in congenital birth defects among Iraqi children.

The 14-strong UN team of scientists and other experts began its field work in Yugoslavia on Tuesday, collecting samples at the destroyed Pancevo petrochemical plant and oil refinery 15km north-east of Belgrade.

The UN's preliminary report, compiled at the end of May, before the end of the conflict, said the bombing of oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other industrial facilities had caused "serious" environmental damage.

Many of the released compounds could cause "cancer, miscarriages and birth defects" while "others are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases", the UN report warned.

The UN team has two mobile laboratories and plans to spend 10 days conducting an environmental assessment of the most badly damaged sites. In addition to the Pancevo complex, these include the Novi Sad oil refinery, the Baric chemical plant and Rakovica industrial complex near Belgrade, the Zastava car factory at Kragujevac, and oil depots in Kraljevo, Nis and Pristina, Kosovo. The report prepared for the European Commission, which has not yet been published, said air and soil in the region had been polluted by industrial chemicals and heavy metals. Copyright Financial Times Limited 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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