Nato obstructs UN inquiry into depleted uranium

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The Independent Online

AFTER INSISTING that no scientific study had ever proved depleted uranium (DU) shells could cause cancer in Iraq or Kosovo, Nato has refused to co-operate with a United Nations team investigating the use of the munitions in the former Yugoslavia.

AFTER INSISTING that no scientific study had ever proved depleted uranium (DU) shells could cause cancer in Iraq or Kosovo, Nato has refused to co-operate with a United Nations team investigating the use of the munitions in the former Yugoslavia.

Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the UN's Balkan environment task force, says Nato refused to co-operate with his team and that "immediate action is necessary to obtain information from Nato confirming if, how and where, DU was used during the conflict."

There is, of course, no "if" about it. Nato admitted in answer to a question from The Independent in May that US A-10 aircraft had used DU shells ­ designed to penetrate thick armour ­ against Serb targets, a statement the US Department of Defence later repeated. A Nato spokesman claimed ­ inaccurately ­ that a Rand Corporation study had proved DU munitions caused no harm.

Hundreds of tons of DU were used in the 1991 Gulf War. In the years that followed, there was an epidemic of cancers among Iraqis living near the battlefields ­ many of whom showed symptoms identical or similar to thousands of Allied veterans now suffering from Gulf War syndrome. Scientists fear similar contamination has taken place in ex-Yugoslavia. Yet when last month Nato was asked for the locations in Kosovo where DU was used, a spokesman said the information was "not releasable".

The UN, it now turns out, got the same runaround. "Nato always replied to our letters," an official in Mr Haavisto's office told me yesterday. "But they never gave the answers we were expecting. They were never able to release the information. They said it was 'security'." Inquiries by The Independent have established that Nato knows perfectly well, from munitions and pilots' reports, target areas againstwhich DU weapons were used. They include districts close to Djakovica, Mitrovica, Pristina, Urahovac and in Serbia proper.

In private, Nato officers have been telling humanitarian officials in Kosovo to stay away from any area where DU was used ­ while still refusing to state where they are. Mr Haavisto's report recommends "a thorough review of the effects on health of medium and long-term exposure to DU" by the World Health Organisation.

Yet two years ago the Iraqis asked the WHO for just such a report. It was never produced. Now the UN says ­ in its DU report ­ that "during and immediately after any attack where depleted uranium was used, some people in the immediate vicinity may have been heavily exposed to depleted uranium by inhalation". Special health examinations are necessary, the UN says, adding that the possible contamination of land need not prevent refugees from returning to their villages. But "hot-spot" target areas must be identified as soon as possible and arrangements made "for the secure storage of any contaminated material".

This, of course, cannot be done ­ because Nato is keeping the information secret.

Seven Serbian opposition groups and parties listed conditions for elections that they hope will drive Slobodan Milosevic from power.

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