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Are the Governments of Nato Guilty of Committing a Heinous War Crime?

17 January 2001

by Robert Fisk, The Independent

Nato is on the run. It's not difficult to see why. The moral crusader against Serb barbarism wielded a sword made of depleted uranium (DU). And as more and more evidence proves a terrible connection between DU weapons and an explosion of cancers and leukaemias among thousands of civilians who were close to DU detonations, the sword now appears far more disturbing than the object of the crusade. After ignoring the hundreds of children and thousands of adults who died in a plague of cancers and leukaemias after the use of DU in the Gulf War, the Americans and the British are still vainly claiming that there is "no evidence" of any ill-effects after its use in Bosnia in 1995. Or in the war against Serbia in 1999.

Needless to say, there is a highly racist element to our concerns about DU. It is only the fate of European or American soldiers that has caused Nato's flurry of denials. Yesterday's Nato press conference claimed albeit unconvincingly only that Nato personnel had not been affected. A handful of unexplained cancers in the Italian and German military had created more furore among European prime ministers than the cull of Muslim or Serb Orthodox lives in Iraq and Bosnia. When I first reported the appalling increase in child cancer in Iraq after the Gulf War, the British government simply said there was no scientific evidence. Now they say the same about the Serb victims.

And, of course, no Nato official, no Nato scientist, no Nato doctor has been to examine and investigate the cases of the Serbs from the Nato bombing site at Hadjici, who have been dying over the past five years a fate that was revealed in The Independent at the weekend.

No Nato personnel have been to see 12-year old Sladjana Sarenac, who, at the age of six, played with shrapnel after the bombing in 1995, who developed a mysterious "yellow sand" under her fingernails within two months, whose nails then dropped out, who went into a 30-hour coma, who bleeds internally and, with blood spots under the skin on her face, appears to have leukaemia. If a single Nato doctor wants to contact me in Sarajevo today (international telephone: 00387-33-288000, extension 215), I will personally drive him to Sladjana's unlit home at Bratunac (her parents spend so much in medical expenses that they can't pay the electricity bill) so that he can see her.

However, I expect no calls. Nato says it has no evidence. The truth is that it doesn't want any evidence. And as long as it can rely on scientific surveys by American professors often at institutes heavily funded by the US Department of Defence and on a forthcoming Royal Society team that did not even bother to visit Bosnia, let alone Iraq, Nato thinks it can get away with it. The last thing Nato officials, in their supposed thirst for knowledge about DU, wish to be given is the very knowledge that awaits them in the hills and deserts where their tanks and aircraft used depleted uranium bombs and shells.

So let's take a look at just one little bit of evidence that Lord George Robertson, the Secretary General of Nato, and his friends in Brussels have ignored in their denial of DU dangers. Almost 10 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, Lieutenant Colonel MV Ziehmn, of the Los Alamos National Laboratories, wrote a memorandum to a Major Larson of the US military. Dated 1 March, it begins in typical Nato-speak with the usual ignorance-is-bliss version of DU: "There is a relatively small amount of lethality data for uranium penetrators, either the tank fired long version or the GAU-8 round fired from the A-10 close air support aircraft. The recent war has likely multiplied the number of DU rounds at targets by order of magnitude. It is believed that DU penetrators were very effective against Iraqi armour..."

So far, so good. But then comes this paragraph: "There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal." Note the bit about DU becoming "politically unacceptable".

But wait. Here's paragraph three: "If DU penetrators proved their worth during recent Gulf combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DOD [Department of Defence] proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability."

And there you have it. DU should be explained away as an effective, cancer-free weapon "proponency" in Col Ziehmn's Strangelove language until "something better" (and less cancerous) comes along. If not, the poor old military will "lose" the right to use this vile weapon. And here, for form's sake, is the final, killer paragraph: "I believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind when after-action reports are written."

Could there, I wonder, be a more effective encouragement to military officers to doctor their reports on the real effects of DU? And isn't this just the craven, mendacious reasoning that lies behind all those bland statements of Messrs Robertson/Shea/ Laity et al in Brussels?

And just for good measure, here's a paragraph from a letter by Alan Casson, an official with the Ministry of Defence's Gulf Veteran Illnesses Unit to Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton on 16 March 1998. Dr Hilton had asked if "radioactive weapons" had been used in the Gulf.

Most of the DU ammunition in the Gulf, Mr Casson explains, was "fired into sparsely populated desert regions" hardly a description he would have dared use about Bosnia and Kosovo although "the Government acknowledges that some Iraqi personnel (military and civilian) may have been exposed to DU and to the products of DU combustion during or immediately following the Gulf War, but we have no information regarding any Iraqi casualties which may have resulted from such exposure."

But, of course, there is information aplenty about those Iraqi civilians. As the Ministry of Defence, the US Department of Defence and Nato know full well. Which is why they don't want to visit the dying Serbs of Bosnia. Mr Blair, Mr Clinton, Lord Robertson and the rest don't want to know; and of course, they will get away with it.

Yes, I know Saddam is a wicked man. But the dying children of Iraq are not war criminals. Yes, I know the Serbs butchered their way across Bosnia. But 12-year old Sladjana Sarenac is not a war criminal. And that is the whole point; because if our governments are at last forced to acknowledge that DU is responsible for the slow death of thousands of civilians, and that they secretly knew this would happen all along, then they will have something in common with Iraq and Serbia: they, too, will have committed a war crime.

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