Gulf troops exposed to nerve gas

US attack on Iraqi depot released sarin vapour, reports Christopher Bellamy

Some British troops were exposed to the leak of sarin nerve gas from the Iraqi arms depot blown up by the Americans just after the 1991 Gulf War, the Armed Forces Minister Dr John Reid confirmed yesterday.

He told MPs the Ministry of Defence was still waiting for the full computer data from the CIA study released on Thursday night, which revealed that up to 100,000 United States troops might have been exposed to vapourised sarin nerve gas. The data would be matched with the log books showing the precise positions of British units in the affected area during 10-13 March 1991.

Dr Reid appeared yesterday before the first session of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence since the general election, to answer questions on the unexplained illnesses reported by 1,880 of the 51,000 British troops who served in the Gulf before, during and after the war.

He admitted that anxieties about the combination of vaccinations had been passed to the Ministry of Defence by the Department of Health in 1990 shortly before the fighting erupted. But the information did not reach ministers before the decision to go ahead with the vaccination programme was approved because of the failure of a civil servant to pass on the relevant documentation.

MPs also heard that Dr Reid was considering a review of the system of compensation for people suffering disability associated with military service, and that four civil servants were facing the possibility of disciplinary action over mishandling the investigation into what might have caused the illness or illnesses.

Dr Reid admitted that although he had announced a "new beginning" into the investigations into Gulf War illness, there was a "lingering distrust" of the MoD among Gulf veterans complaining of unexplained symptoms, which he hoped would be dispelled. On 14 July, Dr Reid announced his new 20- point plan and a policy of openness. Gulf veterans have since complained the MoD has still refused them access to records.

The main complaint concerned the first report written by Group Captain Bill Coker, the senior RAF doctor now recalled by Dr Reid. They had asked for the report, but it was withheld because it was "incomplete".

Yesterday, Dr Reid said that the original report had been based on examination of 284 patients. Since it was first drafted, 1,500 patients have been examined and Dr Reid said it made sense to rewrite the paper based on the the much larger sample now available. He said it would "certainly be published this year".

Dr Reid said there was still no scientific evidence of a single set of symptoms for victims of Gulf War illnesses - which include chronic fatigue and breathing difficulties - and no explanation of a cause. That, he said, made the present system of war pensions the best option available to Gulf veterans.

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