Nato must tell us the truth about depleted uranium

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The use of depleted uranium ammunition in Kosovo was irresponsible. That irresponsibility finally needs to be admitted. The war itself was justified; the means were not.

The use of depleted uranium ammunition in Kosovo was irresponsible. That irresponsibility finally needs to be admitted. The war itself was justified; the means were not.

The depleted uranium shells are popular with the military because the uranium is unusually dense, and can thus penetrate tank armour. Even in war, however, "collateral damage" - to use the hideous euphemism beloved of the military men - must be kept to a minimum. (Britain, by developing a version of the thermobaric "vacuum bomb" beloved of the Russians in Chechnya, appears to disregard such concerns.)

Nato boasted during the Kosovo war of its glasnost, which Jamie Shea, the then alliance spokesman, regularly contrasted with Milosevic's lie machine. That declared openness was, however, itself a lie in this regard. Nato constantly refused to disclose details about its use of depleted uranium, which had already caused concern because of illness suffered by soldiers and civilians in the Gulf. Several months after the end of the Kosovo war, when The Independent's Robert Fisk questioned Nato about the use of DU munitions, he was told that there was "no releasable information" on the subject.

That coyness itself may have reflected official shame. If so, it was entirely justified. Only in March 2000 did Lord Robertson, Nato Secretary-General, finally confirm that 31,000 rounds of DU-tipped ammunition had been used by American A-10 ground attack aircraft in Kosovo the previous year - especially in south-west Kosovo, in areas now under the control of Italian peacekeepers. In Bosnia, 18,000 rounds of DU ammunition were fired. Now, when there have been 30 cases of serious illness among Italian soldiers who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, and following cases of leukaemia among Dutch peacekeepers, Nato finally admits there may be a problem. It is to be discussed at two meetings next week. (Even now, the effect on civilians is still virtually ignored.) Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, says that it is "important that we act". Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, suggests that DU-tipped ammunition should be banned because of the potential risk.

Nato may be right in the narrow sense when it argues that there is no "proven link" between the use of DU-tipped ammunition and cancer. That is hardly surprising, however, if insufficient questions have been asked. The generals and the politicians have until now seemed determined not to confront difficult issues. But ostrichism is no way to run an alliance.

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