Allies' bombs, shells litter Yugoslavia with threats of horrific delayed damage

Explosives can be set to detonate on timer or when person approaches

April 28, 1999|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Even in the age of smart bombs guided by laser beams, dumb weapons that fail to explode, or lie in wait to kill later, are turning parts of Yugoslavia into no man's land.

Unexploded bombs litter more of Yugoslavia with each day that its war with NATO drags on. Adding to the concern is the possibility that armor-piercing shells, a weapon that some critics argue can release dangerous levels of radioactive waste, will be widely used by the alliance in Kosovo.

Yugoslav troops and guerrillas in the Kosovo Liberation Army also have been laying land mines since at least early lat month, when the threat of NATO airstrikes loomed and the civil war escalated.

During five weeks of airstrikes, witnesses here say, NATO warplanes have dropped cluster bombs that scatter smaller munitions over wide areas.

In military jargon, the smaller munitions are bomblets. Dr. Rade Grbic, a surgeon and director of Pristina's main hospital, sees proof every day that the almost benign term bomblet masks a tragic impact.

Grbic, who saved the lives of two ethnic Albanian boys wounded while other boys played with a cluster bomb found Saturday, said he had never done so many amputations.

"I have been an orthopedist for 15 years now, working in a crisis region where we often have injuries, but neither I nor my colleagues have ever seen such horrific wounds as those caused by cluster bombs," he said through an interpreter yesterday.

"They are wounds that lead to disabilities to a great extent. The limbs are so crushed that the only remaining option is amputation. It's awful, awful."

Since cluster bombs lay down a carpet of explosions, they are often the weapon of choice against moving tanks and other military vehicles, which NATO says are at the top of its target list in Kosovo.

But in a civil war such as Yugoslavia's, civilians are never far from military targets.

Pristina's hospital alone has treated 300 to 400 people wounded by cluster bombs since NATO's air war began March 24, Grbic said. Roughly half of those victims were civilians, he said.

Because that number doesn't include those killed by cluster bombs and doesn't account for those wounded in other regions of Yugoslavia, the casualty toll probably is much higher, he said.

"Most people are victims of the time-activated cluster bombs that explode some time after they fall," he said. "People think it's safe and then they get hurt.

"Even when all of this is over, it will be a big problem because no one knows the exact number of unexploded bombs."

Although NATO and Pentagon spokesmen routinely refuse to say what types of weapons are being dropped on Yugoslavia, evidence of cluster bombs isn't hard to find in Kosovo.

One of the most recent indications was the remains of a yellow canister found about 30 yards from where it exploded Saturday. The blast killed five ethnic Albanian children, ages 3 to 15, in the village of Doganovic, about 30 miles south of Pristina.

The boys found the small canister in a field while herding cattle. While two of the boys went to tell an adult, the others apparently tried to pry it open with a knife.

Hours after the blast, the knife lay covered in blood beside a shallow blast crater. The two boys who went for help were about 20 yards away when they were hit by flying shrapnel, Grbic said.

The yellow canister is the same size and color as one of 202 bomblets that fall when a 1,000-pound CBU-87 -- a mainstay of the U.S. Air Force's cluster bomb arsenal -- releases them in midair.

Although the explosion tore several holes through the canister, the letters A/B and numbers 20-30 and 104-012 were legible on the outside. A telltale metal ring, which is known as a spider and clips over a bomblet's top, also was near the small crater.

The bomblets in a CBU-87, which stands for Cluster Bomb Unit-87, can be set to explode at a certain height or time. They also can be tripped by the vibrations of a passing person or vehicle.

The metal casing of each bomblet is scored so it will break into as many as 300 pieces of shrapnel when it explodes, according to descriptions in published guides to military munitions.

More worrisome to some experts is NATO's potential use of depleted uranium shells that can pierce armor more than 2 inches thick. The shells are suspected by some scientists of causing cancer and birth defects.

Depleted uranium shells are standard-issue ammunition on A-10 "Warthog" ground attack fighters, which are flying over Kosovo, and Apache helicopters, which soon are expected to be operating in the province.

Although the Pentagon insists the rounds aren't radioactive enough to harm anyone's health, scientists haven't resolved the debate, said Jean Pascal Zanders, a weapons expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"It's very much an open question," Zanders, head of the institute's chemical and biological weapons project, said in a telephone interview from Stockholm.

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