The Balkan Syndrome Raises Fears in the Czech Republic

The Balkan syndrome, which has been making the headlines in all NATO member countries that have participated in peacekeeping missions, has now also raised fears among Czech army officers. The syndrome is connected with health problems, including leukemia, following exposure to depleted uranium, used in anti-tank shells to add to their hardness during NATO operations in the Balkans. As a result, up to ten thousand Czech soldiers who have served in the region over the past ten years now face medical tests for signs of illness. Alena Skodova brings us this report.

News of the Balkan syndrome broke following reports that six Italian soldiers who served in former Yugoslavia had died after contracting leukemia as a result of exposure to spent depleted uranium bullets. Several European nations have been intensifying calls on NATO to investigate the Balkan syndrome, although the U.S. Defense Department said on Thursday that there was no proof that depleted uranium shells caused cancer, or other illnesses, among European peace-keeping troops in the Balkans.

A high ranking Czech officer, who refused to give his name, told today's issue of the newspaper Pravo that the current situation must not be underestimated. If it's proved that depleted uranium can have damaging effects on the health of soldiers, this could have unforeseeable implications, he said, adding that the Czech army would have to pay dearly for risking its soldiers' lives in this way. The Czech Defense Ministry has confirmed that a Czech helicopter pilot died of leukemia a year ago, after he had returned from a mission in the Balkans, but the ministry refused to link his death with his stay in Bosnia. The disease was discovered before he was due to return to the region.

But according to the Ministry's press department, the military health service has not discovered a single case that could be linked in one way or another with Czech soldiers serving in the Balkans.

The issue has become a scandal, and the countries concerned have decided to carry out tests to decide whether exposure to depleted uranium may be lethal. Czech Defence Minister Vladimir Vetchy has followed suit by entrusting Czech army chief of staff Jiri Sedivy with taking all the necessary steps to ensure that all Czech soldiers involved in Balkan missions undergo special medical check-ups. Almost 10,000 Czech soldiers have served in the region over the past ten years.