NATO at risk

`Balkan syndrome': Speedy information needed to deal with health fears over ammunition.

January 11, 2001

NO ENEMY threatens the 19-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But some members' fears that their troops' health is endangered by other members could sow distrust and weaken the alliance from within.

Much depends on whether NATO makes good on the promise by its secretary-general, Lord Robertson, to share all information about the effects of depleted uranium shells and missiles fired during Balkan campaigns in the 1990s.

The United States, Britain and France used such ammunition. Depleted uranium is a very hard metal that penetrates armor effectively. It is mildly radioactive. An investigation is under way into any possible link to the illness of some 30 NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, at least five of whom have leukemia. The sudden health scare in Europe has fed Russian objections, Yugoslav complaints, Iraqi accusations from 1991 and some vague connection to reports of Gulf War syndrome.

So far, there appears to be no link. A Portuguese scientific mission to Kosovo found no abnormal radiation levels at 52 sites investigated.

But stonewalling will not do. This is about trust. Especially when such countries as Portugal, Norway and Greece send peacekeepers and most armies depend on volunteers.

The eruption of concern across Europe makes this an extremely unpropitious time to talk about removing U.S. troops from the NATO forces in Kosovo, which the Bush campaign had suggested during the election.

Holding NATO together was not candidate George W. Bush's job. But it will be President Bush's. So far, the existence of "Balkan syndrome," is merely suspected, not shown to be real. But NATO must live up to Lord Robertson's promise that the alliance has "nothing to hide and everything to share."

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