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Nando Times

Allies fear disease caused by U.S. shells in Kosovo

By CIARAN GILES, Associated Press

MADRID, Spain (December 26, 2000 5:42 p.m. EST - European NATO allies have begun checking whether their soldiers may have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from depleted uranium ammunition used by U.S. warplanes in Kosovo last year. Spain said Tuesday that initial tests were proving negative.

The Spanish defense ministry confirmed it would examine all 32,000 soldiers who have served in the Balkan region since 1992. A ministry spokesman said none of the first 5,000 soldiers screened for exposure in recent months had tested positive.

Portugal's Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it would send a team of experts to Kosovo to check radiation levels on spent rounds, but did not foresee screening its 330 troops there.

Spain has just over 2,000 troops stationed in the Balkans, half of them in Kosovo.

Fears arose after NATO acknowledged early this year that U.S. warplanes operating in Kosovo fired armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium during the alliance's 78-day bombing campaign in 1999.

Italian Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella said last week that Italy was investigating cancer cases among its soldiers from Kosovo and Bosnia to see if there is a link with the ammunition.

A U.N. team that went to Kosovo in November is doing a similar study and is expected to report its findings in February.

Twelve Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans have developed cancer. In addition, three peacekeepers who served in Bosnia died of leukemia last year. Four soldiers involved in aircraft maintenance have also died of cancer.

Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said Tuesday there have been no problems with leukemia or other illnesses among U.S. troops who served in the Balkans. He said soldiers receive regular health checkups after returning from overseas.

Spain's Defense Ministry medical chief, Col. Luis Villalonga, said the health tests were designed to calm any fears among the troops. He said last week that Spanish army studies coincided with others by allied forces that showed "there has been no radioactive pollution."

He said one case of a Spanish soldier dying of leukemia on returning home was unrelated. He said the soldier had been based in Macedonia, which was not directly involved in the war.

The Dutch Defense Ministry said it would keep abreast of Spanish and Italian inquiries via NATO. A spokesman said the ministry was looking into a National Soldiers' Union report about a peacekeeper with leukemia who served in Bosnia.

Earlier this year, the Yugoslav government reported that the region hit by uranium rounds in Kosovo stretched across a southwestern belt of the province. Most affected were areas surrounding towns such as Prizren, Urosevac, Djakovica, Decani and the Djurakovac village - areas where Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and U.S. troops have been posted.

In its report, Yugoslavia claimed some 50,000 rounds had been fired, while NATO admitted to 31,000 rounds.

Iraq long has blamed an increase in rates of leukemia and other cancers, as well as neurological and muscular diseases, on the use of depleted uranium bombs during the Persian Gulf War. Official statistics show that the number of Iraqi children with cancer rose to 130,000 in 1997 from 32 in 1990.

Depleted uranium, which has low levels of radioactivity, is used in artillery shells because it is extremely dense and can pierce armor. On impact, the shells create an airborne dust.

Some experts believe uranium rounds are environmentally harmful, especially if people and animals inhale the dust that forms when the shells disintegrate. The U.S. Defense Department has defended the use of the uranium, saying the rounds contained no more health risk than conventional weapons.

-- Rachel Gibson (, December 26, 2000

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