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The BBC's Fergus Nicoll
"Political tensions are rising"
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Nato spokesman Mark Laity
"The risks are limited"
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John Spellar MP
"Our response will be to identify an additional appropriate screening programme"
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Pekka Haavisto, head of UN Environment Programme
"Children who are playing in those areas can pick up some remnants (of DU)"
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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 01:46 GMT
Pressure mounts over DU arms
K-For troops measure radiation near a destroyed Yugoslav tank in Klina, western Kosovo
Measuring radiation levels in Kosovo
The head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, has played down the risks of contamination from depleted uranium (DU) shells, despite growing pressure for a ban on the controversial weapons.

For me, there is no threat

UN Kosovo head Bernard Kouchner
Italy and Portugal are among a number of Nato countries screening soldiers who served in the Balkans - where the shells were used - following the death of six Italian peacekeepers from leukaemia.

The European Union responded to alarm about the armour-piercing DU shells on Tuesday by launching an investigation into the possible health risks associated with them.

And the UK Government has announced that it will offer additional medical checks to armed forces personnel who served in the Gulf and the Balkans.

Yugoslav tanks in Kosovo, March 1999
Nato targeted Yugoslav tanks with DU-tipped weapons

But on a tour of Klina, a town in northern Kosovo where Yugoslav tanks were attacked by Nato aircraft in 1999, Mr Kouchner said targeted sites had been thoroughly checked for radiation.

"Risk exists, but in my humble experience as a health minister for 10 years, I think there is no real risk," said Mr Kouchner, a French doctor who co-founded the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres before entering mainstream politics.

Click here to see where illness has been reported

The EU executive has asked a working group of experts to assess whether DU poses a health risk.

They will examine all the available evidence before submitting a report early next month.

The EU also wants to know whether spent DU shells pose any health risks for workers who may take part in EU-funded reconstruction programmes in the region.

The United States says there is no evidence of a significant health risk from DU - a position currently backed by the World Health Organisation. But Portugal has sent three ministers to Kosovo to conduct further investigations.

Nato inquiry

Nato ambassadors are meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the DU scare, which correspondents say threatens to open up a significant rift in the alliance.

You cannot totally exclude the possibility that people can sometimes suffer serious health effects from this type of ammunition

Pekka Haavisto of the UN

The UK and US Governments are likely to resist strongly any attempt to withdraw the weapons from service, as demanded by Germany and Italy.

US aircraft fired tens of thousands of DU rounds during Nato's 1995 bombing of Bosnian Serb targets and 1999 air war against Yugoslavia.

The rounds are denser than standard ammunition, making them more effective against armour.

Depleted uranium 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.

The UN mission in Kosovo is waiting for a report on DU weapons by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), which is due out at the end of February.

UN concerns

Last October, Unep recommended sealing off the Klina site and 112 other former Nato targets in Kosovo pending further research into DU's possible impact on public health.

Pekka Haavisto, head of a Unep team which inspected DU strike sites last year, told the BBC: "If you explode mines in the areas where there is DU in the ground, you probably also explode again some DU ammunition and inhale this type of dust.

"So you cannot totally exclude the possibility that people can sometimes suffer serious health effects from this type of ammunition.

"It can happen that children who are playing in those areas, pick up some remnants. Even adults were picking up some memoirs of the war and putting them in their rooms - and then you have a radioactive source."

WHO officials who spoke to local doctors in Kosovo said there were as yet no signs of an increase in leukaemia cases since the 1999 war - but that such an increase could still become apparent as research continues.

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

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | Europe
Nato faces uranium arms dilemma
09 Jan 01 | Europe
The military uses of DU
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