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NATO weapons in cancer scare

January 3, 2001
Web posted at: 3:56 PM EST (2056 GMT)

ROME, Italy -- NATO is to help Italy investigate claims that Italian soldiers died because of exposure to ammunition in the Balkans.

Italy said on Wednesday it had questioned NATO over the use of depleted uranium in ammunition used in campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia after it was revealed that six Italians who had served there had died of leukaemia.

Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said in an interview published in la Repubblica newspaper that alarm over the so-called "Balkan syndrome" was "more than legitimate."

"This is a very delicate situation," Amato said, adding that his government had only recently discovered that the depleted uranium ammunition was used in the earlier Bosnia mission as well as in Kosovo.

"We've always known that it was a danger only in absolutely exceptional circumstances ... while in normal circumstances it isn't dangerous at all," he said. "But now we're starting to have a justified fear that things aren't that simple."

On Thursday, Italian Foreign Minister Sergio Matarella is due to visit Kosovo to reassure troops still serving there that they are safe.

The visit comes, however, as Italy steps up a campaign to find out more about the ammunition.

A spokeswoman at NATO's headquarters in Brussels confirmed the alliance had received a request from Italy "for more information on the geographic use of the depleted uranium."

"NATO will do everything it can to provide this information ... Italy is a member country (of the alliance) and if it requests something, the alliance will do its best to help," the spokeswoman said.

Amato's acknowledgement that "Balkan syndrome" was of serious concern prompted swift reaction in Italy.

The Communist Refoundation Party, which supported the centre-left government from 1996-98, called for all Italian troops to be pulled out of the former Yugoslavia immediately.

Franco Giordano, Refoundation's leader in the lower house of parliament, also called for Javier Solana, NATO's secretary-general during the Kosovo conflict of 1999, to resign from his current post as European Union foreign policy chief.

"He certainly cannot carry on in the role he's filling at the moment," Giordano said.

Leukemia Link

An association representing families of the six Italian dead released a copy of a document in English which it said was a list of NATO guidelines of how to deal with depleted uranium.

The association said the document, dated November 22, 1999 and apparently issued from the Yugoslav town of Pec, had never been given to troops before that date, although soldiers had by then spent months peacekeeping in Kosovo after a conflict in which uranium-tipped shells were used.

"It is very important to be aware of the problem, to know how to protect soldiers and how to avoid long term health effects," the document reads. "It is important to disseminate this information to all levels."

The six Italians who have died since returning from the Balkans all suffered leukaemia.

The latest was a 24-year-old soldier from Sicily who died after serving twice in Bosnia but never in Kosovo.

Doctors have said there is insufficient evidence to link the deaths to exposure to uranium bullets -- used to pierce armour -- but Italian media have claimed the number of deaths is too high to be coincidental.

Some 60,000 Italian soldiers and 15,000 civilians served in the Balkans during the 1990s.

According to Italian media reports, NATO used around 31,500 bullets and shells capped with uranium during the campaign.

Amato's call for a NATO probe followed similar expressions of concern from elsewhere in Europe.

On Friday, Belgium called for European Union defence ministers to discuss health problems suffered by peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.

Portugal has ordered medical tests for its military and civilian personnel serving in Kosovo to check for exposure to radiation and Defence Minister Julio Castro Caldas has proposed a meeting of NATO countries to share information and agree common methods of testing.

Concerns have also been raised by service members or civilian aid workers in Britain and the Netherlands.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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