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Germany Summons US Envoy Over Plutonium in DU
By Adam Tanner [posted 1-25-2001]

[Reprinted from Reuters]

A missing translator, a minister under fire and his tardy subordinate may have led to the rare step of Germany summoning the top U.S. diplomat to complain about depleted uranium munitions, officials said Monday.

Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping made the unusual move of calling in the U.S. charge d'affaires last Wednesday -- an act that generally conveys diplomatic pique -- to express "concerns" that depleted uranium munitions used in Kosovo could also contain traces of much more deadly radioactive plutonium.

"It should be the damned duty of a friendly nation to inform their partner," Scharping said at the weekend, using distinctly undiplomatic language about a key ally's behavior on the issue.

Yet some of Scharping's irritation at feeling left out of the picture -- as controversy has swirled about mystery ailments among NATO peacekeepers in the Balkans -- may stem from a breakdown in communications earlier in the week.

Just the day before he took the virtually unprecedented step of summoning charge d'affaires Terry Snell -- the ranking U.S. diplomat in Berlin in the current absence of an ambassador -- top U.S. radiation experts had already told Scharping's deputy, Walter Kolbow, about the possibility of plutonium impurities.

Yet translation problems could have got in the way.

"I tried to make the point clear and tried to say the plutonium word as often as I could but I did get the sense that there was difficulty at the meeting Mr Kolbow was at in understanding what was said," said U.S. Army Medical Command Colonel Eric Daxon, one of the U.S. experts giving the briefing.

"We did not have interpreters and they were relying on their English and my German which nowhere near comes close to being able to communicate the things I was trying to communicate," he said, adding the meeting was hastily arranged.

In a short interview, Deputy Defense Minister Kolbow said he did not hear the full Tuesday briefing -- which sought to calm fears about the radiation dangers -- because he arrived late.

"The meeting was not made with me but with a Social Democratic Party (SPD) working group on security questions," Kolbow, an SPD legislator, told Reuters.

"Having found out by chance that this talk was taking place it then took some time before I got there. While I was there the word plutonium was not mentioned."

DOMESTIC POLITICAL PRIORITIES?

Some American officials -- and some German commentators -- said Scharping may also have summoned the diplomat a day after this briefing for his own domestic political grandstanding.

"The whole purpose was a political ploy, in other words something that helped him in the preparation for the press conference he held right afterwards to say that he was doing something," one U.S. official said.

"Apparently Sharping is under pressure from his colleagues and his opposition in the Bundestag (parliament) to come clean on this -- 'what did you know and when did you know it?"'

The defense minister's spokesman said he acted promptly in summoning Snell after hearing of a German television report on the possibility of plutonium traces Tuesday evening, and so that he would be briefed before a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

"He wanted to get this cleared very quickly," spokesman Detlef Puhl said. "Scharping didn't call on him because he was the expert on it but because he was the representative of the U.S. government."

Scharping's call forced Snell to prepare hastily: "You've got five minutes to tell me everything I need to know," Snell told his experts, according to one U.S. diplomat.

(C) Reuters 2001 Reprinted for Fair Use Only

Further reading on NATO's weapons of terror:

Further Reading on NATO's Weapons of Terror:

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