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[Felicity Arbuthnot has written a great deal about the Gulf War and depleted uranium, as well as about the attack on Yugoslavia. Following this article there is an interview with Ms. Arbuthnot and following that some comments which were kindly submitted by the environmental writer, Piotr Bein.]
In a week which has seen the French government follow their Italian counterparts in launching an enquiry into the effects of depleted uranium (DU) on their soldiers in Kosovo, the Portuguese Defence Minister, Julio Castro Caldas has informed NATO Headquarters that he is withdrawing Portuguese troops from Kosmet. They were not, he said, going to become uranium meat.
DU, first used in the 1991 Gulf war, is both chemically toxic and radioactive and is used as coating, ballast or core for weapons.
Two Italian K-FOR soldiers have been flown to Rome suffering from cancers and the Rome Military Attorney has joined his colleagues in Milan, Turin and Venice in investigating DU in Kosovo and the Balkans and effects on Italian troops. Last month the Yugoslav Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Djoko Stojicic told media in Prague that K-FOR soldiers in Kosovo-Metohija had long been experiencing health problems associated with DU. Quoting NATO French Air Force Commander, General Joffret he said the West apparently wanted to get rid of their nuclear waste, contaminating the region. Belgium and Dutch troops are instructed by their governments not to eat local produce and that clothes must be destroyed on departure and vehicles decontaminated. K-FOR contingents have drinking water flown in.
Portuguese Defense Minister Julio Castro Caldas said his decision should have been made earlier and that Portuguese forces should not have participated in last year's 72 day war in the Balkans. Former UK Minister of Defence, now NATO Secretary General, George Robertson was well aware of the dangers posed by DU, he said.
Portuguese soldiers were sent on missions in the area poisoned with depleted uranium, Pereira wrote in the influential Lisbon journal 'Diario de Noticias'. NATO confirmed that the area was contaminated by DU and the UN representative also confirmed and apologized. Pereira stated that there was opposition in the headquarters of other countries performing missions in poisoned areas. If it is hard to persuade military circles in Washington, Paris, London or Berlin to send their troops to the critical areas in Kosovo, does that mean that the Portuguese are to represent uranium meat?
Earlier this year a seven page document warning of the hazards of DU was placed in the mail boxes of all personnel working out of the UN building in Pristina and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Command in Europe (SHAPE) issued warnings to United States Commands urging the widest possible dissemination to forces of other nations. A recent meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme attended by bodies including the International Atomic Energy Authority and the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute resulted in ongoing consultations as to how to proceed with a scientific field assessment of DU sites, according to Director Klaus Toepfer. Previous assessments had been hampered by NATO's refusal to provide maps of affected areas.
This Wednesday, Dr Asav Durakovic and Dr Hari Sharma, world renowned radiation experts who tested sick Gulf war veterans for the presence of DU in their bodies and found up to one hundred times the safe limit remaining eight years after the Gulf war, will brief the Justice and Human Rights Commission at the European Parliament.
If Balkans Syndrome is proven to affect K-FOR and reportedly other people working in the region, might not the native population of Kosovo also suffer the cancers and birth deformities from DU which as we know have devastated Iraq?
And how does this question figure in the calculations of NATO?
Interview with Felicity Arbuthnot
I spoke to Felicity Arbuthnot, author of the above article, in the wee hours of this morning, October 25th. She told me the following story: "In June of 1999, on the day that they announced they were sending ground troops into Kosovo, I rang the Ministry of Defense and I said, "Are we now going to see a wave of Balkans War Syndrome?" And they said, "Absolutely not! The Minister himself has given strict instructions that no personnel must go near anything that might have been hit by depleted uranium weapons and if it is unavoidable they must wear full radiological protective clothing."
Jared Israel: Doesn't that slightly contradict their other positions? That Gulf War Syndrome has nothing to do with depleted uranium?
Felicity Arbuthnot: Exactly. So I said, "What about refugees we're encouraging to return not to mention the people who did not leave, the Serbs and Roma and so on," and they said, "Oh, that has nothing to do with us. That's UNHCR [the UN refugee organization]."
So I rang up UNHCR and put the same question to them: "What is going to happen to these people?" And I said one of the things that the Ministry person had told me was they had been told not to disturb the soil lest dust should come up. I said, "How are they going to rebuild their homes if you don't disturb the soil?"
Israel: Especially since the homes that had been hit with shells containing DU would be exactly the ones where you would have to tear down, consequently disturbing dangerous soil.
Arbuthnot: That's exactly right. Then UNHCR said to me, "What's DU?" So I sent them about three trees worth of material.
Israel: They didn't know what DU was?
Arbuthnot: I sent them piles and piles of stuff and they then said, "You know, this is really extremely alarming. Do you think we should pull our personnel out?" And I said "Well, if you are encouraging the refugees to go back and you pull your personnel out and they get sick and I were they I'd be reaching for my lawyer." So they went very quiet. And you know, in the article I speak of this report which mysteriously appeared in the pigeon holes of all the personnel that work out of the UN headquarters in Pristina warning of the dangers of DU. And you know there are hundreds and hundreds of people working out of there. And then, there are the people who live there as well as those who have been driven out since NATO arrived and who should like to come back, aren't there?
More on Depleted uranium in Kosovo
[We received the following comments from environmental writer Piotr Bein concerning the widespread danger from Depleted Uranium.- EC]
DU-oxide particles attach themselves to dust in the vicinity of DU weapon explosions. Counterbalance and navigational gear in aircraft and helicopters that crashed or were shot down, as well as in all flying bombs (Tomahawk, JDAM, etc.), are made of DU metal.
Unoxidized DU metal in the downed craft and in unexploded ammunition, rockets, bombs and missiles rusts away into a very fine black dust. This dust, too, spreads around through air, water and via people, animals and mobile objects that move over it.
Staying in a contaminated area is risky because one never knows how one might ingest a particle of DU oxide, and one particle is all one needs to become sick.
The risk in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans is augmented by the uncertainty of where DU was dropped in whatever form and what winds and surface water movements spread it further.
Working the fields, walking about, just being there, touching objects, breathing and drinking water are all risky. A British expert predicted that thousands of people in the Balkans will get sick of DU. The radioactive and toxic DU-oxides don't disintegrate. They are practically permanent (half-life of 4.5 billion years).
Dr. Piotr Bein is an independent writer on ecological issues and author of the virtual book "NATO in the Balkans" which can be read, in the Polish language, at http://www.most.org.pl/zb/internet/nato/
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