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Belgrade Probes Weapons Cancer Link

The Belgrade authorities seek to clear up confusion over depleted uranium contamination reports
By Milenko Vasovic

Serb and Albanian concern over radioactive poisoning has been fueled by the reported links between uranium tipped weapons and recent cases of cancer among former peacekeepers.


NATO planes fired 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium, DU, ammunition into Serbia and Kosovo during the NATO air war in 1999.


Serbs believe that the location and scale of DU contamination was hidden from them by the Milosevic government.


Albanians, meanwhile, are certain the poisoning reports are part of a Serb conspiracy to force NATO troops out of Kosovo.


They are so convinced the reports are groundless that Albanians living in southern Serbia close to the border with Kosovo dismissed an attempt by Yugoslav soldiers to mark an area suspected of having been contaminated as simply a ploy to kick them off their land.


In an attempt to address Serb fears, the new Federal Ministry of Health set up a committee this week to investigate the effects of DU ammunition on both civilians and the environment.


"Everyone says that radiation levels increased in my neighbourhood following the bombing," said Tanja Aleksic from the Rakovica district of Belgrade. "There are no official statements so we do not know how to behave or what to believe."


Many share Aleksic's fears. Public uncertainty over the issue, some say, has resulted from the deliberate withholding of information by the former regime.


Slobodan Tosovic, an eco-toxicologist from the Institute for the Protection of Health in Belgrade, claims that the Yugoslav army had opposed the release of data documenting health risks.


Some scientists and opposition leaders claimed an FRY report on the subject, released in April 2000, was deliberately ambiguous. They suspected that Slobodan Milosevic believed fears of radioactive contamination would cast him in an unfavourable light among those who blamed him for provoking the NATO air strikes.


The cost of decontaminating areas hit by DU ammunition as well as potentially huge medical expenses for poisoned victims is also thought to have been a factor in the decision.


Dr Dragan Veselinovic at the Serbian environment ministry described the report by the former government as lacking vital information.


"The report was very poor," said Veselinovic. "My impression is that the government didn't want to bother the public with too many details."


Though the report claimed radiation levels of up to 1000 times the norm, it failed to specify which areas were affected or elaborate on the potential health risks or environmental impact.


The new federal committee will focus on cordoning off, testing and decontaminating sites in southern Serbia and Kosovo listed in surveys carried out by the UN Environment Programme, UNEP.


Since November 2000, UNEP has carried out tests on 11 of the 112 sites hit by uranium tipped shells. They registered radiation levels slightly higher than the norm. An official statement said "it would be an unnecessary risk to the population to be in direct contact with any remnants of DU ammunition."


The UNEP surveys used NATO maps which indicated most radioactive ammunition was fired into Kosovo, particularly in the region between Prizren, Pec and Djakovica.


The debate over the toxicity of depleted uranium is far from over. Miroslav Simic from the Vranje Health Institute helped conduct tests on 500 civilians in southern Serbia living in heavily targeted areas.


"Damage to the environment is already evident," he said. "People have not yet been affected, but they could be over the next few years unless emergency decontamination measures are introduced immediately," he said.


Other medical experts have also warned that the actual consequences may not become evident for another five years.


Fears were brought to the fore in December last year when the Italian government announced an investigation into the deaths of six of its soldiers from leukaemia. A further twelve have developed cancer.


A small number of troops from Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and the Czech Republic have died of leukaemia since serving in the Balkans. Eight more cases of the illness have been reported in Belgium and France.


The World Health Organisation, WHO, has however voiced doubts about any link between DU and the leukaemia deaths in a report due out next month.


The report includes the findings of a recent study carried out in several Kosovo hospitals which showed the average levels of leukaemia among the local Albanian population had not risen since the NATO bombardment.


Dr Erik Schouten, WHO's Head of Mission in Kosovo, stated that "on the basis of these preliminary results we cannot conclude that the number of leukaemia cases is increasing."


Additionally, an Italian army unit specialising in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, said it found no evidence of DU contamination after surveying the area.


Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova claims that groups opposed to NATO intervention are generating the DU poisoning reports to discredit the operation. "Research should be carried out to prove this propaganda wrong," he said.


Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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