ROME - Italian Prime Minister Guiliano Amato said on Wednesday that his country would seek explanations from NATO on the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Balkans conflict, amid reports that six Italian soldiers who served there have died of leukemia.
Following the death of a sixth Italian soldier, Amato told La Repubblica newspaper that "NATO must carry out all the checks that will allow us to understand the history and the characteristics of depleted uranium."
A feeling of alarm over the reports was "more than legitimate," he added.
The family of a soldier who served in the former Yugoslavia, 24-year-old Salvatore Carbonaro from Sicily, said on Tuesday that he had died of leukemia in November.
The dead soldier's brother, Mauro Carbonaro, told a regional newspaper that Salvatore had been in contact with depleted uranium (DU) weapons, which are used in some tank-piercing projectiles because of the metal's high density.
The dead man served in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1998 and 1999, although that is not a period when NATO has admitted to using DU weapons in that region.
NATO officials said last month that US aircraft fired more than 10,000 depleted uranium projectiles in Bosnia between 1994 and 1995 as well as in Kosovo in 1999.
Carbonaro was the sixth Italian soldier to serve in the region whose death has been linked to what is being called the "Balkans syndrome" -- a series of health problems contracted by those who served in the former Yugoslavia.
The Italian defence ministry has set up a commission of enquiry to investigate the mooted link between the deaths and cancer cases and the use of the depleted uranium.
Amato said the issue was "really very delicate."
"The indisputable need to support the Alliance can allow of neither hesitations nor omissions. We could not tolerate that," he told the newspaper.
Besides the six Italian military fatalities linked to the syndrome, the press here has listed another 30 suspected cases of soldiers contaminated by depleted uranium.
Reports from other European countries whose troops have served in the region have been contrasted.
In Belgium, five cases of cancer have been diagnosed in soldiers who served in the Balkans, but no link with the arms has been established.
Several cases of leukemia have also been recorded amongst Dutch veterans of the Balkans, and Spain has launched an intensive study of some 32,000 military personnel who were on duty there.
Portugal's army chief of staff said Thursday that about 900 former peacekeepers would undergo medical tests to see if they had been exposed to radiation linked to depleted uranium arms.
The newspaper Publico -- citing a Lisbon cancer specialist -- reported last week that the death of a Portuguese soldier who served in Kosovo could be linked to NATO's use of the weapons in the Balkans.
But a German defence ministry spokesman told the country's Welt am Sonntag newspaper that tests carried out by the German army on its Kosovo veterans over the past 12 months had not shown any radiation-linked illnesses.
Depleted uranium weapons are denser than conventional arms, which means they can penetrate heavy armour more easily.
In addition to their deployment in the Balkans, they were used in Iraq in 1990 and 1991.
Some 60,000 Italian troops and 15,000 Italian civilians have taken part in missions in the former Yugoslavia since 1995.
Copyright © 2000 AFP