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Belgrade: NATO contaminated our land
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- NATO's use of depleted uranium shells has left "long-lasting and dangerous" radioactive contamination in Yugoslavia, local army officials say.
Radiation levels in the Presevo Valley near the Kosovo border are up to 1,300 times higher than what is considered safe, army experts say. Four areas in Serbia and one in Montenegro are said to be contaminated.
The areas tested by Yugoslav officials do not include Kosovo, which took the bulk of the estimated 30,000 depleted uranium (DU) rounds fired during the NATO campaign of 1999.
In Belgrade, the army colonel in charge of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare said NATO has given the Yugoslav army maps indicating where DU rounds were fired -- mainly rural areas away from populated centres.
Army officials say so far no Yugoslav soldier deployed in the areas targeted with DU rounds has shown evidence of contamination. That's because, officials say, soldiers were equipped with special protective gear during the bombings.
"None of the soldiers of the Yugoslav army are ill due to overexposure to radioactivity, and I know that among the local population we still do not have cases of illnesses reported," said Yugoslav army Lt. Col. Cedomir Vranjanac.
But Col. Milan Zaric of the Yugoslav army general staff said he is concerned about the possible fallout from the use of this kind of ammunition.
"It is still too early for the consequences to be shown," Zaric said. "We still do not know so much about the influence of depleted uranium on water sources or food."
Scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Physics outside Belgrade are working closely with the army to examine soil samples and spent DU rounds from southern Serbia.
Yugoslav army investigators say NATO fired as many as 5,000 DU projectiles against targets outside Kosovo, mostly in southern Serbia near the border with Kosovo.
Scientists confirm that radiation levels there are higher than normal, and say that dust and debris from the majority of the fired DU rounds remain.
"That can cause deep contamination on underground water supplies and finally enter into the food chain," said Snezana Pavlovic of the Institute for Nuclear Physics. "But it is not a quick process, it will not happen in a year."
Yugoslav officials say there is no radiation danger for residents unless they stand on the very spot hit or hold DU ammunition in their bare hands. But officials worry about unexploded rounds that missed their intended targets and ended up deep in the ground.
"There is a real threat (the) local population could become exposed to radioactivity, because the local farmers keep livestock in this area" despite warning signs, Vranjanac said.
Local doctors say so far they have not seen any evidence of an increase in illnesses typically linked to radiation exposure. But residents say they didn't know about the possibility of radioactive contamination until they heard the issue discussed on television.
"We are all very concerned because we drink milk which farmers bring from the contaminated areas," said one resident. "Until a few days ago we knew absolutely nothing about higher levels of radioactivity in our neighbourhood."
In Kosovo, now under U.N. and NATO administration, a team of Portuguese experts recently conducted radiation tests and said they found nothing out of the ordinary.
But scientists with the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in November found slight contamination at eight of 11 locations examined in Kosovo. U.N. scientists advised that the eight sites be closed off, but that apparently has not been done.
"I don't believe anything was done," said U.N. spokeswoman Suzan Manuel. "UNEP did recommend at that time that sites be marked off and I'm not sure that has been done. I think it is something we need to take up."
Yugoslav army officials also question the morality of the use of depleted uranium rounds.
"There was no need to use that kind of weapon. ... That kind of weapon has consequences that could last almost forever," said Col. Zaric.
"It is a very strange way to carry out (a) humanitarian mission -- to cause (a) contaminated area that is going to remain and to cause danger for the people for several thousand years."
That is precisely what most worries Yugoslav officials: the still unknown consequences of depleted uranium on the environment and the population -- something that may take decades to establish.
U.N. urges more radiation tests
United Nations Environment Programme
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