Pressure was today mounting on the Government to screen soldiers who served in the Balkans war for cancer after the UN said it had found radiation at eight sites in Kosovo hit by Nato ammunition.
The UN Environment Programme, based in Geneva, said that its preliminary findings called for precautions to be taken when dealing with ammunition containing depleted uranium.
The Ministry of Defence today insisted the risks were minimal to personnel.
A UNEP field mission in November visited 11 of the 112 sites identified by Nato as having been targeted by ordnance containing depleted uranium during the aerial bombardment of Kosovo.
An ethnic Albanian boy runs in front of the destroyed Yugoslav Army barracks in the Kosovar town of Pec, January 4, 2001. NATO ambassadors are expected to discuss the alleged Balkans syndrome next week following claims that six Italian peacekeepers died after being exposed to depleted uranium from spent ammunition. (Hazir Reka/Reuters)
It collected soil, water and vegetation samples and also conducted tests on buildings and destroyed vehicles.
"At eight sites, the team found either slightly higher amounts of Betaradiation immediately at or around the holes left by depleted uranium ammunition, or pieces and remnants of ammunition, such as sabots and penetrators," Pekka Haavisto, the chairman of the assessment team, said in a statement.
"It was surprising to find remnants of depleted uranium ammunition just lying on the ground, oneandahalf years after the conflict.
"Also, the ground directly beneath the ammunition was slightly contaminated," he added.
"For this reason, we paid special attention to the risks that uranium toxicity might pose to the ground waters around the sites."
The samples taken are being analysed in Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, Austria and Italy. UNEP said it expected to have the results in early March.
"UNEP's aim is to determine whether the use of depleted uranium during the conflict may pose health or environmental risks either now or in the future," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director.
UNEP said it also was planning a field mission to Serbia and Montenegro.
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Menzies Campbell said: "Although the findings are preliminary, nonetheless they do raise issues of concern.
"The use of depleted uranium shells has long been controversial and we owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to take every precaution for their protection.
"Nor can we shirk our moral and legal responsibility not to use a weapon which may have devastating consequences for civilians long after the conflict has ended."
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.