MOSCOW, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday the West had ignored its warnings about the hazards of using depleted uranium weapons in Kosovo and their legacy endangered the people and environment of Yugoslavia as much as NATO"s Balkan veterans.
Politicians and generals said preliminary tests had found no illness among Russian troops who served in Bosnia or Kosovo but that the Kremlin had long ago foreseen the dangers the tank-busting weapons posed to humans and the environment. "We began to worry back in June 1999," said Lieutenant-General Boris Alekseyev, the head of environmental safety for Russian armed forces, quoted by the daily Kommersant. "But the danger we talked about did not get any reaction, either in our own country or in the West."
Controversy over NATO"s use of depleted uranium coated weapons erupted after at least seven Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans died of leukaemia and many other veterans fell ill with symptoms ranging from cancer to fatigue.
Dmitry Rogozin, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said the West should have heeded Kremlin warnings long ago. "We are surprised that NATO countries are only now talking about the ecological damage wreaked by their aggression," Rogozin said in televised comments.
Russia fiercely opposed the 1999 NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.
"All these reports and research were conducted long ago. Volumes of documents about the chemical pollution of the environment and the effect on people living in that zone have been presented," Rogozin said.
NATO has maintained there is no proven link between use of the weapons and cancer, and ambassadors of the 19-member alliance are due to discuss the matter later on Wednesday.
Russia says it wants to test as many as possible of its 10,000 or so Balkan veterans, the roughly 3,000 peacekepers it has in Kosovo and 1,000 men stationed in Bosnia. Tests have so far found no unexpected health problems in Kremlin troops. Rogozin said the effects of the NATO bombardment of Kosovo would haunt the Balkans for years to come and probably held more grim surprises for the West and the Yugoslav people.
"It is highly likely that there are hidden facts not only about the damage done by depleted uranium...I have been in Pancevo, not far from Belgrade, where a big chemical works was totally destroyed by American aviation," Rogozin said. "Tonnes of mercury entered the water table, so it"s probable that there are other causes of colossal damage, not just to soldiers but to the wider population of Yugoslavia."
Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed high-ranking general as saying high background radiation and contamination of the water table could render large parts of Kosovo uninhabitable.
"The Russian Defence Ministry spoke from the start against the use of these weapons in the Balkans, but in NATO headquarters no one listened to our opinion," he said. "In a big way this led to an international scandal which is only just beginning."
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