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Monday, 8 January, 2001, 17:26 GMT
Portugal ups stakes in uranium row
Uranium-tipped shells were used to devastating effect
Portugal is sending three cabinet ministers to Kosovo as part of Europe-wide moves to establish whether Nato's use of uranium-tipped weapons is linked to cancer cases among peacekeepers.

Portuguese soldiers examine soil for contamination in Kosovo
Nato foreign ministers including those from Portugal, Italy and Greece are pressing for a full-scale inquiry amid health concerns in many European countries over use of the armour-piercing weapons in Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Six Italian soldiers, five Belgians, two Dutch nationals, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech have died after tours in the Balkans. Four French soldiers and five Belgians have also contracted leukaemia.

The time has come to no longer be completely confident in others

Portuguese PM Antonio Guterres
Depleted uranium (DU) is used in munitions to make bullets or missiles more dense so that they can pierce armour.

The material gives off relatively low levels of radiation, but can be dangerous if ingested, inhaled in dust or if it enters the body through cuts or wounds.

Portugal's ministers of defence, home affairs, and science and technology are to set off for Kosovo on Tuesday.

While the Defence and Home Affairs Ministers Julio Castro Caldas and Severiano Teixeira will visit the country's peacekeepers stationed there, the Science Minister, Mariano Gago, will meet a team of Portuguese experts already on the ground.

Click here to see where illness has been reported

They have been monitoring radiation levels in the Italian-run sector where the 300 or so Portuguese peacekeepers are based, and collecting samples for later laboratory analysis.

The president of the Portuguese Nuclear Research Institute is to accompany the ministers and will personally bring back any samples already collected, in order to ensure that tests start as soon as possible after the delegation's return on Wednesday.

DU shell
Dense DU shells can penetrate armour
The authorities last week began testing some 10,000 Portuguese soldiers and civilians in the Balkans during the 1990s to determine whether they were exposed to higher levels of radiation.

Portugal's Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, said on Friday that concerns over illness are justified despite Nato assurances that depleted uranium weapons used in the Balkans were not a health risk.

"The time has come to no longer be completely confident in others, as we rightly had been up until now," he said.

Nato officials and the EU's security committee are to consider the issue at separate meetings on Tuesday.

Michael Repacholi: Children could be at risk
Nato Secretary-General George Robertson is also due to visit Sweden, the current holders of the EU presidency on Thursday.

World Health Organisation experts said on Monday they doubted that depleted uranium weapons in the Balkans had caused leukaemia among allied troops.

But they warned that children playing in former conflict areas where the weapons had exploded could be at risk.

And they recommended that soldiers who had taken home DU shell parts as souvenirs should dispose of them promptly.

WHO specialist Michael Repacholi said: "Based on our studies, and the evidence we have, it is unlikely that soldiers in Kosovo ran a high risk of contracting leukaemia from exposure to radiation from depleted uranium."

His comments came ahead of a WHO study to be issued next month.

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | Europe
Nato faces uranium arms dilemma
06 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Tests needed for 'Balkans Syndrome'
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