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Greece steps up weapons row
LONDON, England -- Greece has told its troops in the Balkans that they can return home if they fear illness from depleted uranium weapons.
The Greek announcement came as growing alarm over the alleged toxicity of the controversial ammunition prompted Russia to demand a summit of NATO members on the issue.
A furore over the tank-busting shells has threatened to split the NATO alliance with critics blaming depleted uranium (DU), a radioactive heavy metal used in the munitions, for cancer among troops who served in the Balkans.
NATO held briefings in Brussels on Friday in an effort to reassure nations over the health fears but it is continuing to deny any proven link to DU weapons.
"The idea of a general risk of contamination is false," a NATO statement quoted an official as telling a special meeting of some 60 representatives of countries who have contributed troops to the peacekeeping missions.
In Athens, however, Greek Defence Minister Apostolos Tsochatzopoulos said any of his country's peacekeepers already serving in Kosovo who were worried about the possible risks of DU would be allowed to return home.
"We don't want even one soldier to stay against his will," Tsochatzopoulos told reporters during a visit to Kosovo. "Anyone who wants to leave will immediately be replaced."
Greece now has 1,481 peacekeepers deployed in Kosovo, some of whom already have expressed a desire to terminate their tour of duty.
A military official said nearly a third of the soldiers who had applied for a tour of duty in Kosovo have now changed their minds because of concern over DU munitions.
On Saturday, Britain's Royal Navy announced it would phase out the use of DU artillery by 2003 but not because of the health fears.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The U.S. manufacturers have decided not to manufacture depleted uranium rounds anymore. They are moving to alternatives. We have no choice but to do the same."
"The move is a gradual one that we had already decided on," he said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday it was planning a study to assess whether there had been an increased rate of cancer among military personnel who served in the Gulf War or Balkans, as well as among exposed populations.
The U.N. health agency said it was unlikely that exposure to residue from the NATO weapons could have led to a higher risk of cancer among military personnel who served in the Balkan conflicts.
Depleted uranium (DU) munitions can pulverise on impact, creating radioactive dust that can enter the human body via the lungs.
NATO member Turkey said two of its soldiers had been exposed to depleted uranium munitions used during the Balkans conflicts.
"We have two personnel who had been affected at a benign level," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Dirioz told a news briefing.
'Objectively' work out the danger
Russia warned NATO that the furore over depleted uranium was only just beginning and said international experts should meet to discuss the dangers.
"We will make a proposal to Russia's president on holding an international conference of specialists on this problem within the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) or the U.N.," Interfax news agency quoted Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev as saying.
He said the conference would allow experts to "objectively work out the degree of danger the use of these weapons presents to human life."
So-called "Balkans Syndrome" has been blamed on seven deaths from leukaemia among Italian troops and illness among servicemen from France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal.
Portuguese soldiers serving in the Balkans are likely to encounter higher background uranium radiation at home than on their Kosovo and Bosnia missions, the NATO meeting was told.
Portuguese officials said early results of an on-the-spot study of 50 depleted uranium sites closest to where Portuguese troops with NATO are based "showed overall natural levels of uranium are actually lower than in Portugal itself."
A new study showed that German peacekeepers serving in Kosovo had shown no signs of exposure to debris from depleted uranium ammunition fired during NATO's air war against Yugoslavia.
"All measurements of uranium were around levels we would expect from groups which have not been exposed," said Paul Roth, a radiation expert at the research body that carried out the tests for the German Defence Ministry.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Germany issues uranium 'all clear'
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