News Unlimited | Danube study questions warfare that bombs polluting targets Danube study questions warfare that bombs polluting targets

Paul Brown on the Danube

The Observer - Wednesday October 27, 1999

The rules of warfare which resulted in the people of Serbia and Kosovo being faced with life-threatening pollution should be reviewed, the head of the UN Environment Programme's Balkans Taskforce, set up to study the environmental aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, said yesterday.

Pekka Haavisto questioned the bombing of industrial plants close to big cities when it posed an immediate risk of pollution.

Mr Haavisto, a Finnish pollution expert, was addressing a scientific, religious and environmental symposium on the problems of pollution on the Danube. His statement, at a meeting in Bucharest, came a few days after he delivered the taskforce's report to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.

He is said to be angry that its findings have been played down in Nato countries.

The taskforce's mandate runs out next month and will not be renewed, leaving unresolved the issues of toxic seepage into the Danube, the whereabouts of depleted uranium used by US forces in anti-tank munitions in Kosovo, and the best way to clean up contaminated soil.

One of the worst-hit areas, he said, was Pancevo, outside Belgrade, where mercury and dioxins were being washed into the Danube, whose water downstream in Bulgaria and Romania was used for drinking. In addition, pollution from the bombed oil refinery at Novi Sad was leaking into the river just above the Serbian city's water intake.

"It is up to the international community to discuss and decide whether the rules of modern warfare are up to date when looking at all the risks to human health and to the environment," Mr Haavisto said.

Power shortages were another problem: emissions to the Danube from the mining town of Bor had increased as a result of the lack of electricity."

The symposium was the idea of the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox church, Bartholomew I, and those taking part, including the exiled King Simeon of Bulgaria, have travelled the length of the Danube. They visited Novi Sad at the weekend.

Philip Weller of the World Wide Fund for Nature's Green Danube project congratulated Mr Haavisto. "There are a lot of issues this war has raised that we cannot walk away from," he said.

"Depleted uranium is one we do not know enough about. But there are some, like the leaking of mercury and other toxic substances from the Pancevo canal into the Danube, that we do know have to be dealt with, and quickly. If not, then innocent people downstream in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and as far away as the Ukraine will suffer.

"By bombing oil refineries and chemical factories Nato was conducting a highly dangerous chemical experiment with unknown and possibly devastating consequences. We have to question whether rules should be in place to prevent that happening in the future."