United Nations body calls for all Kosovo bomb sites to be sealed amidst growing fears concerning depleted uranium

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for all areas hit by depleted uranium (DU)-tipped shells during the 1999 Kosovo conflict to be cordoned off following reports of at least 21 leukaemia deaths among troops, but NATO has denied any link between DU and cancer.

The UNEP has requested that all 112 sites in Kosovo where DU-tipped shells landed should be sealed off because the organisation found shells lying on the ground and children playing nearby, whilst inspecting 11 sites for evidence of the substance posing any risk to human health or the environment. It also says more needs to be done to inform the local population of potential risks.

Samples of water, soil, vegetation, dust from vehicles and fragments of armaments such as penetrators were taken from the 11 sites, selected for the amount of ammunition used and the relevance of the sites to the environment and the local population. Although “independent and detailed” results will not be available until March, the UNEP said that at eight of the 11 sites, “slightly higher amounts of Beta-radiation immediately at or around the holes left by DU ammunition, or pieces and remnants of ammunition, such as sabots and penetrators,” the UNEP said.

UNEP said that a further assessment team may need to be sent to Kosovo in the spring of 2001 “to complete the assessment required for the formulation of conclusions” and says that if there is enough funding it will visit sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was also suffered from DU-tipped shelling in its recent war.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has also called for a more extensive survey of sites in the Balkans that were hit by Nato shells containing depleted uranium and said that checks on at least 30 sites were required for a satisfactory survey and that more information is also needed on the spread of DU contamination under battlefield conditions.“The level of research carried out so far is not yet sufficient to warrant a scientific conclusion,” said IAEA Director-General Mohamed el-Baradei.

Experts from Yugoslavia, heavily-shelled with DU-tipped ammunition have also said they have found radioactivity levels more than 1,000 times greater than usual in Serbia and Montenegro.

NATO, supported by the UK government, however, has moved swiftly to allay the fears of European countries over the deaths and many other cases of cancer, reported amongst troops and humanitarian agency staff in at least seven countries. “Let me now underline that there is no link of any kind that has been discovered between the very low levels of radiation found in depleted uranium and the contracting of leukaemia,” said NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson on 10 January. “And this conclusion has been supported in the past few weeks by bodies like the World Health Organisation and UN Environment Programme, with whom NATO has co-operated fully on this issue.” NATO also said that the initial analysis of the 11 sites tested in Kosovo suggested that they did not contain high levels of radioactivity and announced no plans to suspend useage of DU-tipped weapons.

Until now, however, the US and British governments have said that they believe the munitions to be safe and that they have the evidence to prove it (see Pentagon studies into DU).The controversy has re-ignited worries over DU expressed over servicemen’s exposure to the chemical during the Gulf War, after which the US government concluded that it found it “unlikely that depleted uranium exposure is a cause of illnesses experienced by Gulf War veterans.” The UK government has now, however, agreed to the medical screening of those who served in the Balkans and denied the validity of an internal governmental document warning of health risks associated with DU, drawn up four years ago.

Other European countries are not as convinced, however. Portugal, with two reported cancer deaths among Balkan troops, was the first to begin medical tests on 10,000 soldiers and civilians this week with Prime Minister Antonio Guterres saying that he could no longer “be completely confident” in Nato assurances that DU presented no risk of contamination. The country, along with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Greece and Russia, wants NATO to review its use of DU and a full inquiry.

To date, Italy is the country most affected by the controversy, with seven soldiers and one Red Cross worker reported dead from cancer and 23 other soldiers under investigation for illness.

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