Balkan Aftermath: Wave of sickness sweeps Serb town made toxic by Nato bombs

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The Independent Online
THE ECOLOGICAL time bomb is ticking. Nobody knows when or how it will explode.

For the moment, the visible effects are almost routine. In recent weeks many people in the Serbian town of Pancevo have come out in red blotches and blisters, after lying in the grass for a few minutes, for example, or after picking vegetables. Theoretically it could be just a common batch of allergies. But, says Zoran Nedic, dermatologist and secretary of the health committee in Pancevo, "I've never seen anything on this scale."

The number of skin problems has doubled in recent weeks. Dr Nedic sees this as the tip of the iceberg.

A United Nations mission, led by the former Finnish environment minister Pekka Haavisto, has been in Pancevo this week to assess the potentially devastating scale of the problem. Everybody in Pancevo, a town of 150,000, shares the fear of what they describe as the ekologicheska katastrofa - Nato bombing of the town has unleashed a poisonous cocktail of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the water, air and soil.

The fertiliser factory was bombed, releasing huge amounts of ammonia into the air and into the Danube. The oil refinery was repeatedly bombed: 20,000 tons of crude oil were burnt up in one bombardment alone, and a cloud of black smoke hung in the air for 10 days. The petrochemicals factory was bombed: 1,400 tons of ethylene dichloride poured into the Danube, and high concentrations of vinyl chloride, the main constituent of PVC, were released into the atmosphere at more than 10,000 times the permitted level.

And so it goes on. The official list of environmental damage runs to six closely typed pages, from the first bombing raid, on 24 March, to the last, on 8 June.

Each of these events separately would, in ordinary times, set environmental alarm bells ringing. When combined in a multiple cataclysm - in the early hours of 18 April, several factories were bombed within a few minutes of each other - the effects are incalculable.

As Dr Nedic points out: "Never in history have a petrochemicals factory, an oil refinery and a fertiliser factory all been on fire during a single day." He predicts that cancer rates will be "sharply up" in the years to come.

Dr Sava Stajic, of the Pancevo Society against Cancer, notes that cancer levels were already higher than average in the area because of the industrial pollution from the factories in previous years.

But he, too, argues that there will be an "epidemic increase" because of the hundreds of thousands of tons of "highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals" that have been released - including uncertain quantities of chlorine, mercury, hydrocarbons, ammonia, nitrogen and sulphur oxides, phosphorous compounds and hydrogen halides. It is a case of "name a toxic chemical, and it is on the list".

The mayor of Pancevo, Srdjan Mikovic, deeply resents Nato's willingness to bomb the town without consideration for the effects - what he describes as "a serious intention to kill the town". He and the city council represent the anti-Milosevic opposition. But he argues that the destructive bombing of the town has done much to destroy pro-Western feeling.

He points to a cupboard where he has stowed the British and American flags that he used to keep on his desk.

"We received their ambassadors here. We never dreamed that these countries might bomb us."

Certainly there can be no chance to plead ignorance of the implications. Many factories were built and installed by Western companies. After the fires, "black rain" fell on Pancevo and the surrounding area, covering plants with a slimy layer. There was an official warning against eating vegetables fresh and without careful washing. But most fear that the longer- term effects will be much more drastic than the problems of coping with greasy lettuce. The Danube may have been affected downstream into Romania. Crop changes in the surrounding area seem inevitable.

The black jokes abound. How do children in Pancevo count to 30? By counting on the fingers of both hands.

Dr Nedic argues that talk of biological change is more than just fantasy. "A lot of the chemicals released are not just carcinogens but can also cause mutation," he said.

Timothy Garden, Review, page 4

Chinese Embassy Attack Was CIA Error

THE CHINESE embassy in Belgrade that was erroneously bombed during Nato's Kosovo operation was the only target of the conflict that was nominated by the Central Intelligence Service, it was revealed yesterday. Testifying before Congress about the most diplomatically costly mistake of the war, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, said that the building was thought to house a Yugoslav arms agency.

The error was ascribed to a failure in updating by the Pentagon's mapping agency. However, Mr Tenet said that up-to-date maps had later been found at the CIA, but were not consulted by the military planners. Nominating a target and planning to strike it, he said, were two different processes, and the CIA was not involved in the second. Even if it had been, there is no guarantee the target would have been correctly identified. Mr Tenet said the CIA also had maps showing the Chinese embassy in its old location.