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Is NATO killing soldiers?

6 January 2001

By Jamie Walker, Europe correspondent, and Agencies

Washington was playing down mounting European concern over use of depleted uranium shells in the Balkans, as the number of cancer cases grew among troops who served as peace-keepers in the region. European ministers called for an urgent inquiry into NATO's use of the weapons and the suspected health risks.

NATO's North Atlantic Council, its highest decision-making body, and its political committee said it would discuss the issue on Tuesday. Four French soldiers yesterday joined the growing list of NATO veterans diagnosed with leukaemia, with a possible link to radioactive dust from the uranium depleted shells.

Italy has said that six of its soldiers have died of leukemia, while the Belgian army has reported five cancer deaths.

The Dutch army has also announced several cases of the potentially fatal blood disorder.

The so-called Balkans Syndrome is said to mirror the illnesses suffered by veterans of the Desert Storm offensive to liberate Kuwait, and is proving equally controversial.

Neither the US nor Britain, who committed most of the troops in both operations, has been prepared to recognise either condition, since no single cause or disease outcome has been identified.

Symptoms reported by Gulf War veterans range from severe fatigue, double vision and headaches to urinary and sexual problems.

Depleted uranium used to harden shells, missile and bomb casings is alleged by some scientists to cause leukaemia, neurocognitive disorders, and liver and kidney damage.

US attack aircraft fired about 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition designed to pierce armour at Serbian tanks and armoured cars during the Kosovo campaign. The substance is also believed to have been used in cruise missiles and guided bombs.

The Pentagon, however, is adamant the ammunition does not pose a health hazard.

The Belgian Defence Ministry took the lead after nine peace-keepers who had been in Bosnia and other parts of former Yugoslavia became ill with cancer. Five subsequently died, according to local press reports. Belgian defence spokesman Gerard Harveng said other soldiers who had been on Balkan deployment reported a variety of unexplained ailments, including headaches and insomnia. But he insisted that the nine cancer cases, when taken as a proportion of the 12,000 Beligan troops who had served in the Balkans, was in line with the normal incidence of cancer among civilians. However, a number of NATO countries are now checking the health of soldiers who served in either Bosnia or Kosovo.

The countries now carrying out investigations or calling for a NATO inquiry into the suspected depleted uranium connection are Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Turkey, Greece, Belgium and The Netherlands. In the Muslim-Croat half of Bosnia, the Health Ministry said the number of cancer cases had risen between 1999 and 2000 from 152 per 100,000 people to 230, but said it could not confirm any link with the Balkans Syndrome.

The Italian Defence Ministry acknowledged that no link had so far been found between depleted uranium munitions and the deaths of the six Italians, but said it had nevertheless urged NATO to stop using the projectiles.

The Pentagon yesterday rejected the Italian calls for a moratorium, saying it had found no link to leukemia or any other health problems among troops who served in the Balkans.


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