Britain reverses stance on `Balkan syndrome'

Medical tests offered amid munitions scare

January 10, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Nearly two years after the 78-day Yugoslav air war stretched the limits of NATO cooperation, the 19-nation alliance is facing a new struggle: a mounting European public relations disaster over "Balkan syndrome."

Yesterday, Britain reversed its policy and joined other European countries offering voluntary medical tests for troops fearful they might have been exposed to depleted uranium in the Balkans, most prominently in ammunition used by U.S. forces in the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

Depleted uranium is used in various munitions for its excellent strength and ability to pierce armored vehicles, tanks and buildings. A possible health hazard exists in the aftereffects of an explosion - inhalation of dust, for example.

Experts say conclusive evidence does not exist linking exposure to depleted uranium to illnesses such as cancer and liver damage. But the fear of a connection is pervasive, and as early as July 1999, the United States warned its troops and allies against touching material from this ammunition.

While insisting that there was no evidence of health risks linked to the depleted uranium, British Armed Forces Minister John Spellar told the House of Commons, "We do recognize that some of the recent coverage will have caused some concerns among our people, and we recognize a need to reassure them."

Meanwhile, at a meeting of NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium, Britain and the United States opposed an Italian request to halt the use of depleted uranium ammunition until it was deemed safe, Reuters reported.

Controversy has roiled across the Continent since Italy announced last month that six of its former Balkan peacekeepers died of leukemia. Other NATO allies also reported the leukemia deaths of soldiers who served in the Balkans: Belgium, five; the Netherlands, two; Portugal, one; and Spain, one.

European newspapers fanned the issue for days, and politicians have been forced to respond, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder among those calling for an investigation.

The controversy has apparently unnerved some troops. Yesterday, 400 members of Norway's crack Telemark Battalion reportedly refused to serve in the Balkans until they receive assurances about health risks. The troops are due for a June deployment, and the deadline for signing contracts has been postponed by at least a week.

Ireland also ordered a medical check of troops.

In what the British news media described as a "U-turn," Spellar issued a hastily prepared statement to the House of Commons.

Spellar said British military and civilian personnel who served in the Balkans are eligible for the tests. But he added that the Defense Ministry has no evidence "of unusual ill health among our Balkan peacekeepers, or specifically any ill health that would suggest heavy metal poisoning."

Britain will continue to use depleted uranium ammunition for the "foreseeable future," Spellar said, because it provides a "battle-winning military capability."

Uranium-tipped ammunition was used in Kosovo, Bosnia and the 1991 Persian Gulf war, with some veterans claiming their health was damaged.

During NATO's 1999 air campaign to oust former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's troops from Kosovo, U.S. A-10 planes used about 30,000 of the armor-piercing rounds. About 10,000 rounds were also fired in neighboring Bosnia in 1994-1995.

The British government's move did little to satisfy former army engineer Kevin Rudland, who said he was "devastated" by the announcement. Rudland served in Bosnia and says the tour left him with osteoarthritis, hair loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There was nothing for the soldiers whatsoever," Rudland told Britain's Press Association.

Malcolm Hooper, a Sunderland University professor and member of a gulf war illnesses parliamentary group, said the Defense Ministry is "hellbent on not getting any information that would put any block on the development of these depleted uranium munitions."

Paul Beaver of Jane's Defense said the issue presents NATO with more of a "political problem than a scientific problem."

"There is almost an hysteria," he said. "There isn't the evidence to show that there is any real hazard with it. It is a toxicity problem rather than a radiation problem.

"The battlefield is a very dangerous place. There are other carcinogens out there. There is so much out there which could potentially cause lymphomas or leukemia. It is really quite nasty."

Beaver said that many of the countries complaining the loudest, such as Italy, don't have depleted uranium munitions and were uncertain of NATO's war aims during the Kosovo conflict.

"All the people complaining are left-wing or anti-NATO," he said.

Jim Lyon, Serbia project director of the International Crisis Group, said illnesses could have come from a great number of sources, including the coal mined in Kosovo, a lead smelter that billowed so much pollution it was shut down by peacekeeping troops, and the depleted uranium.

"To point the finger at cigar-sized rounds [of depleted uranium] that impacted the earth is a little premature and alarmist," Lyon said.

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