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International Herald Tribune, August 7, 1999

Copyright 1999 International Herald Tribune  
International Herald Tribune (Neuilly-sur-Seine, France)

Mine Death Toll Rising in Kosovo

By Carlotta Gall; New York Times Service

The danger from mines and unexploded bombs in Kosovo is far greater than previously thought, and casualties have soared to alarming levels, according to international aid agencies and mine-clearing organizations here.

By far the most dangerous are the volatile British- and U.S.-made cluster bombs, which have been found in almost every part of the province and have already caused some terrible accidents. Depleted-uranium ammunition was also used in Kosovo, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has told those defusing the bombs and clearing the mines.

As the death toll rises and aid agencies contemplate the difficult task ahead, recriminations are growing over NATO's use of the cluster bombs and what an aid worker said was the reluctance of the alliance to deal with ''its own battle junk.''

The mines were planted by the Yugoslav Army and ethnic Albanian guerrillas during their yearlong war before the NATO bombing.

In a report last week, the World Health Organization estimated that from June 13 to July 12, 130 to 170 people were injured or killed in bomb and mine accidents, a rate of about 10 per 100,000 residents.

Former army engineers and explosives experts from a British group, the HALO Trust, are close to completing a two-month survey and have found a far greater presence of mines planted by Yugoslavs and Kosovars than they had expected. These experts have visited every village in Kosovo.

But far more alarming for the engineers is the high number of cluster bombs they have found, and have seen kill people. Their storage room in Pristina is full of the ugly casings of bombs, missiles and mine debris, and a whole wall is devoted to the cluster bomb.

NATO has told those clearing the ordnance that it dropped 1,500 cluster bombs on Kosovo during its two-month air war. Each releases 150 to 200 bomblets, small canisters that float down to the ground on individual parachutes or with metal shuttlecocks. Each canister is potentially lethal when jolted or moved.

There is widespread ignorance about the danger of cluster bombs. Two soldiers of the British Gurkha regiment were killed when moving cluster bombs into a field to destroy them. It was reportedly four weeks after the bombing ended that allied officers mentioned that rounds tipped with depleted uranium had been used against Serbian tanks, and warned those clearing mines to avoid crawling over tank wrecks.

The Pentagon has insisted that there is no health hazard from the low levels of radiation released when the rounds explode, but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission treats depleted uranium as a hazardous material, and Western anti-war groups, as well as health officials in Iraq, where such shells were used during the Gulf War, have disputed the Pentagon assertion.

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