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Radiation From Balkan Bombing Alarms Europe
7 January 2001
By Marlise Simons
PARIS, Jan. 6 — Pekka Haavisto made some startling discoveries on a recent mission in Kosovo to assess the impact of uranium-tipped weapons hurtled on the province during NATO's 78-day bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999.
"We found some radiation in the middle of villages where children were playing," said Mr. Haavisto, a former environment minister of Finland who headed the United Nations inquiry in Kosovo. "We were surprised to find this a year and a half later. People had collected ammunition shards as souvenirs and there were cows grazing in contaminated areas, which means the contaminated dust can get into the milk."
The discovery by Mr. Haavisto and his team of low-level beta radiation at 8 of the 11 sites they sampled seems certain to fan a rapidly spreading sense of fury and panic across Europe about the well-being of soldiers sent to serve in the Balkans, more than a dozen of whom have since died of leukemia.
Residents of Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro may also increasingly resent that they were unaware until now of the need to clean up the low-level uranium dispersed by American weapons dropped over Bosnia in 1995, and over Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo war.
Mr. Haavisto said that even though the radiation was low level, the debris should be removed. "We are recommending that until the cleanup starts, contaminated areas should be clearly marked and fenced off," he said. "The local people do not understand the material."
Even in Western Europe, it is only in recent days that full alarm has been sounded about what the European newspapers have dubbed Balkan syndrome. Besides the leukemia deaths and cases being treated, uncounted numbers of soldiers who served as peacekeepers in the Balkans have complained about an array of symptoms, like chronic fatigue, hair loss and various types of cancer — complaints similar to gulf war syndrome, registered after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The 15-country European Union has ordered its own inquiry into the possible noxious effects of the uranium-tipped ammunition and any potential link to the recent cancer deaths among Balkan veterans.
Tens of thousands of European soldiers who served in the Balkans have already undergone quietly conducted medical tests in countries like Belgium, France and Canada. This week, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Norway, Greece and Bulgaria have announced that they will screen all Balkan veterans. Britain, which also owns uranium- tipped ammunition, has resisted.
Alarm bells rang first in Belgium, where nine Balkan veterans have fallen ill with cancer, five having since died. Two veterans have died of leukemia in the Netherlands, and one in Spain. France said it was treating four veterans for leukemia. In Italy, 30 veterans contracted serious illnesses, 12 of whom developed cancer. Six of the cancer patients have already died of leukemia.
Italy said it had also asked NATO for more information about areas where the weapons were used, fearing that its troops served in an area of southern Kosovo that was heavily shelled by NATO's uranium-tipped antitank weapons.
The Italian defense minister paid what was billed as a morale-boosting visit to the Italian troops in the former Yugoslavia on Thursday and Prime Minister Giuliano Amato himself has now become involved in the discussion about depleted uranium.