by Vesna Peric Zimonjic
(IPS) BELGRADE --
the United States and European Union scramble to reassess the health risks from depleted uranium shells used during NATO's interventions in the Balkans, officials in the region say it could take a decade to fully appreciate the long-term impact on the local population.
"It is too early to say what the consequences of the 1999 contamination in Serbia are," says Dr. Slobodan Cikaric of the Belgrade Institute for Oncology. "One must bear in mind the fact that radiation-related leukemia takes between two to five years to develop, while the time span for radiation-related cancers is up to ten years."
So far, 18 soldiers from European countries have died of leukemia after serving in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is suspected that exposure to depleted uranium (DU) may have led to deaths of seven Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech.
International troops came to Bosnia in 1995, after the three-year war ended there. The international peacekeeping mission in the UN-administered southern Serbian province of Kosovo was deployed in June 1999, following 11 weeks of NATO air raids against Serbia.
NATO used some 31,000 shells capped with DU in the 1999 air raids, mostly in Kosovo and in southern Serbia. NATO used similar weapons in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995. At the time, territories held by Bosnian Serbs were targeted by DU ordnance.
Shells capped with DU make bullets or missiles denser, so that they can pierce armor. The material gives off relatively low levels of radiation, but can be dangerous if ingested, inhaled in dust or if it enters the body through cuts or wounds, experts say. Once it enters the underground water table, it may enter the food chain. It is deposited in lungs, kidneys, bones or brains. Long-term exposure can cause gene mutations, they add.
European countries are urging NATO to investigate the deaths of the peacekeepers. Top European bodies like the European Union and European Commission are to discuss what has become known as "Balkan Syndrome" later this week.
Yugoslav and international experts warn that all this could just be the tip of the iceberg, as in addition to a total of 50,000 peacekeepers deployed in the Balkans, some 10 million people live in the area.
NATO's use of armor-piercing DU shells in 1999 has left four areas in Serbia contaminated by radiation, Colonel Milan Zaric of the army's atomic and chemical warfare department said at a press conference in Belgrade.
The zones are at Serbia's southern boundary with Kosovo, near the towns of Presevo, Bujanovac and Vranje.
"Measures have been taken to address this issue and some of these areas have been marked," said Zaric.
Around 100 people living near the suspect zones have undergone health checks but have not shown signs of illness related to uranium exposure, he added.
"It's early to say anything now," Dr. Gordana Kostic from the Health Center in Vranje told IPS. "The possibility of a larger number of radiation-related cancers cannot be expected before 2004 or 2005," she added.
The UN-run Kosovo Province is off-limits for Serbian authorities and soldiers, so no statistics on Kosovo can be obtained in Belgrade. Some 1.6 million people live in the province.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it has found no evidence of an increased leukemia risk there. But research continued after the head of a UN team that found DU at eight sites warned that landmine clearance could stir up toxic dust, and that children especially ran an increased radiation risk.
The team urged that the targeted sites be sealed off. But this had not yet happened, a spokesman for NATO-led peacekeepers confirmed to Belgrade media earlier this week.
Susan Manuel, spokeswoman for the UN administration, admitted that no instructions for the local population were prepared regarding contaminated sites in Kosovo until last week.
"People will be warned to avoid those areas," she said. In her statement to the media in Belgrade, Manuel would not comment why it took more than 18 months for the international administration to address the problem.
Ecologists in Serbia are highly critical of both Western and Yugoslav government behavior regarding the use of DU weapons.
"It is simply not true that only Kosovo and southern Serbia were the targets of DU shells in the 1999 NATO air raids," says environmentalist Dejan Dimov.
"NATO carried an experiment 'in vivo' against the civilian population all over Serbia," he added. "DU ordnance was used even here, in Belgrade. High levels of radiation were recorded around army headquarters, ministry of interior buildings, destroyed by NATO at the start of the air raids."
All the locations are in densely-populated residential areas of the capital, said Dimov. He said three bridges over the Danube River in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad were also destroyed by DU-capped rockets.
"It's a crime on all sides not to tell people what happened. In years to come, thousands of us will be patients that will have to be treated for cancer, and everyone here and abroad will say that it is not their responsibility," said Dimov.
January 15, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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