Government gives in on uranium test demands

The Government was today set to give in to pressure for tests to be conducted into the health effects of depleted uranium shells.

Armed Forces Minister John Spellar was due to make a statement on the shells in the House of Commons this afternoon amid reports that medical testing of British Gulf War and Balkans veterans was to be announced.

The statement comes after inquiries were launched by some Nato allies into the effects of the tank-busting radioactive ammunition, which was used particularly heavily in Kosovo.

A decision to begin testing British veterans would mark a climbdown.

For a decade defence chiefs and ministers have resisted calls for tests to examine mystery ailments that have afflicted veterans of recent conflicts.

They had insisted there was no evidence that the depleted uranium (DU) ammunition used in the conflicts could damage soldiers' health.

An MoD spokesman last night rejected reports that tests would be set up, insisting the Government's stance had not changed.

However, this morning a spokeswoman said Mr Spellar would be making a statement on depleted uranium to MPs this afternoon.

The Government has been under increasing pressure to launch its own inquiry after six Italian soldiers died of leukaemia. However, this morning the MoD was still insisting the Government's stance had not changed.

A spokesman said soldiers who served in the Balkans war would only be tested when there was positive evidence linking depleted uranium to cancer.

"There's no change in the situation. It hasn't changed. It is the same as it was last week and indeed last night," the spokesman said.

"If we see evidence that there's health risks and if we think it's necessary we could change that position. But we have no plans to introduce screening at the moment."

Italy and Portugal have already launched their own inquiries into the safety of depleted uranium ammunition following the emergence of so-called Balkan War Syndrome.

Former British Army engineer Kevin Rudland claims that exposure to depleted uranium while on service in Bosnia made him a victim of the syndrome.

Mr Rudland, 41, from Hull, served in the Territorial Army for 18 years and in the regular Army in Bosnia for just six months before returning home.

The father-of-three said today that he began to suffer from the syndrome within a few weeks of coming home from Bosnia.

His hair fell out, he began to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and he developed osteoarthritis, he said.

He was now seeing a psychiatrist for psychological problems caused by his illness which he says has made him "unemployable".

"If the announcement is made on Thursday that they will screen for cancer it will be like a dream come true," he said.

"I have been reduced to nothing by this illness. I have chronic fatigue and depression and all I want is for this to be recognised by the Government.

"But I will carry on campaigning, for myself and other soldiers, whatever the announcement. It would be hugely disappointing if they didn't start screening."

The Labour chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, Bruce George, said he would applaud a Government U-turn on its refusal to carry out medical checks.

Even if the MoD was sceptical about the claims made by veterans that their illnesses have been caused by the tank-busting shells, it would be well-advised to bow to demands for tests, to show it was "caring", he said.

Mr George told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I know the personalties involved, the Secretary of State and (Armed Forces Minister) John Spellar, and the idea that somehow they are unconcerned ... I think is erroneous.

"I think now the MoD, despite their scepticism, must collaborate, not just with Nato, but I think they should go out and look at the Italian research.

"It is vitally important that all the major countries that are going to examine their forces do so with a common methodology.

"If it is true that there is a link between depleted uranium and leukaemia/cancer, then people are going to die, and therefore I don't think they are going to have too much time, they have to come up with some swift research."

Mr George's committee is expected to call in defence ministers for questioning on depleted uranium ammunition as it prepares a report on the issue.

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