Toxic byproduct of fighting in Kosovo

Warning: Concerns raised by Philip Berrigan about radioactive ammunition are echoing in Europe.

January 14, 2001|By Carl Schoettler

THE BIBLICAL OBSERVATION about the prophet without honor in his own country has taken a sadly ironic turn for Philip F. Berrigan, Baltimore's immutable peace activist.

Berrigan remains locked in a Maryland prison for protesting the use of depleted-uranium ammunition by American and NATO troops during the war in Kosovo.

But last week health fears surged across Europe about possible depleted-uranium-caused cancers among soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Kosovo.

Leaders of a half-dozen European countries demanded inquiries into the potential for cancer among their soldiers exposed to dust or debris from radioactive depleted-uranium anti-tank projectiles.

The 15-member European Union reacted by ordering an investigation by its own scientists of unexplained disease and deaths among Balkan peacekeepers.

NATO members Germany and Italy urged a moratorium on the use of depleted-uranium ammunition until the cancer-causing potential of the weapons is studied. Portugal sent government leaders to meet with Portuguese troops in Kosovo.

The French press agency reported that Italy had 18 suspected cases of "Balkan Syndrome" cancers, with eight deaths, among soldiers returned from Kosovo. The Portuguese press reported two deaths among five cases of cancer contracted by Balkans veterans.

Agence France-Presse said five Belgian soldiers, two Dutch, two Spanish and a Czech died after tours in the Balkans. Four French and four Belgian veterans have been diagnosed with leukemia.

The presidents of Poland and Ukraine, which operate a joint battalion of 1,700 troops, head for Kosovo on Tuesday.

Berrigan, 76, and three others from the Plowshares movement were sent to jail last March after they were charged with trespassing on the Air National Guard Base in Essex, then damaging an A-10 Warthog aircraft during a protest against depleted-uranium weapons.

The A-10, a tank killer, fired about 31,000 rounds -- 10.5 tons, -- of depleted-uranium ammunition during about 100 missions in Kosovo. During the Persian Gulf war, A-10s fired up to 940,000 depleted uranium rounds and it was widely used in anti-tank artillery shells fired by U.S. forces. The low-level radiation from depleted uranium has been identified as a possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome.

Depleted uranium is a heavy metal left over when uranium is enriched for nuclear weapons or power plants. Because of its density, depleted uranium penetrates armor and it makes very effective armor plating.

The Plowshares activists believe depleted uranium is a threat to human health and the environment. They say it causes cancer to those exposed to battlefield dust and debris, a cause of congenital malformations in children and genetic damage to future offspring. No one denies that depleted uranium is a toxic, radioactive substance. The debate is over how toxic and how radioactive it is.

NATO officials dismiss the risk from depleted uranium as "virtually" zero.

But the French news agency said a "hazard awareness" document was circulated among NATO allies by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in January 1999. The warning said spent ammunition or contaminated materials should not be handled without protective masks and coverings.

Berrigan and his Plowshares companions -- the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 50, Susan Crane, 56, and Susan Walz, 33 -- were not allowed to present testimony about depleted uranium before Judge James T. Smith Jr. in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The defendants then refused to take part in the trial."We cannot put on a defense about the dangers of depleted uranium and our rights and our duties under international law," said Susan Crane, a member of Baltimore's Jonah House community.

"We have been denied our right to testify about these topics," she said. "We have been denied our expert witnesses. Therefore we can't go forward."

The next day the judge sentenced Berrigan to 30 months in prison, two others to 27 months and a third to18 months.

"If we had conformed and bent our necks, our sentences would have been much different," Berrigan said.

"The judge didn't understand what he was doing. He thinks if he uses a club on people, he'll get them to submit. Some may get frightened and will submit, others will say, `No!'"

Berrigan said no. He remains in jail. Last week the questions he and his friends raised echoed more and more loudly in Europe. The prophet is not without honor.

Carl Schoettler is a feature writer for The Sun.

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