U.N. probes NATO use of depleted uranium in Kosovo
By Matthew Bigg

NAIROBI, Aug 12 (Reuters) - The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Thursday it was investigating possible damage to human health caused by NATO's use of shells tipped with depleted uranium during the Kosovo conflict.

UNEP director general Klaus Toepfer told a news conference at the organisation's Nairobi headquarters that NATO used the shells against tanks during its air campaign and residents and reconstruction workers were now concerned that the uranium could damage the environment or cause cancer.

A NATO source in Brussels confirmed that depleted uranium had been used during the conflict, but only in cannons fitted to A-10 tankbuster planes and not in missiles.

He said its use was limited and there was no proof that the weapons posed a threat to health.

"These munitions were used, but not widely and only in the last few weeks of the war," the source told Reuters. "Remember that we're talking about depleted uranium. These reports have been overblown. It's never been proved that they are an environmental hazard."

Toepfer told Reuters in Nairobi: "It is necessary to single out what are the possible negative consequences of the depleted uranium used in weapons during the war.

"I think that it is a necessary question to answer so that the possible consequences can be known and if there are no consequences people can be informed on a clear basis." Depleted uranium is used in warfare against tanks and bunkers because its extreme density allows it to punch through armour and concrete.

Uranium tipped shells explode on impact, casting the uranium into the atmosphere where it can be inhaled or seep into soil and ground water, a UNEP official said.

Concern over the use of the shells in Kosovo was heightened by knowledge of the possible effects of depleted uranium shells in the 1991 Gulf War, Toepfer said.

Almost 100,000 of the 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf have subsequently complained of ailments including chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, memory loss, depression, and reproductive and gastrointestinal problems. and ground water, a UNEP official said.

A U.S. study group recommended last year that researchers consider the effects of depleted uranium and a wide range of other substances used in the war as possible causes of Gulf War illness.

The United States has rejected Iraqi charges that thousands of depleted uranium shells used by U.S. and British forces in the Gulf War sparked an environmental and health disaster in southern Iraq.

UNEP, working with the World Health Organisation and the U.N. Atomic Energy Authority and other bodies, had devised a two-step approach to assessing the problem in Kosovo, Toepfer said.

Experts from a range of organisations were "brainstorming" in Geneva to collate existing knowledge on the possible effects of the uranium and a decision would probably be taken to send a team to Yugoslavia to assess possible damage, he said.

A UNEP official said the field team hoped start work by the end of the month and to produce its report by the end of September.

The investigation is part of a wider assessment by UNEP and the U.N. agency on human settlements, HABITAT, into the environmental impact of the Kosovo conflict.

A team of international experts visited Yugoslavia in July to look at the most seriously damaged industrial sites, while a second team, based in Pristina, started work on July 20.