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U.S. accepts Czech report of chemical traces in gulf


PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- U.S. officials said yesterday that they accept a Czech report that traces of chemical warfare agents were found on several occasions during the Persian Gulf war, but said no link has been found so far between the findings and illnesses plaguing veterans of the conflict.

"There were five independent detections by the Czech units. We do not dispute their findings," said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Democrat who heads the Veterans' Affairs subcommittee and who led a three-member fact-finding mission to look into the reports.

"We have no empirical evidence of what happened there, but we believe that the Czech unit was professional and competent and that in every respect their equipment was good."

More than 2,000 of the 500,000 U.S. gulf war veterans have complained of problems ranging from fatigue, aching muscles and headaches to hair loss, sore gums, loose teeth and abdominal pains since the war ended 2 1/2 years ago.

About a dozen of the 207 Czech and Slovak soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf have reported similar afflictions.

Mr. Shelby and his team plan to travel to Britain and France today and tomorrow to investigate comparable illnesses among veterans from those countries.

Most of the U.S. soldiers reporting health problems were scattered around the gulf region; only one group was concentrated in a particular area, which was hundreds of miles from where the chemical agents were measured, said Ronald Blanck, commanding general of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and a delegation member.

While Czech and U.S. officials cannot show any positive link between the health problems and the chemical agents, they said the illnesses appear to be real, and investigations into their origin will continue.

Other possible causes for the afflictions include the severe air pollution from oil well fires in the region, emissions from petro-chemical plants and vaccinations the soldiers received before being sent to the Gulf.

"We certainly cannot rule out that these low levels of chemical agents that were detected might have contributed to this illness," General Blanck said.

The U.S. officials said Czechoslovak chemical warfare monitoring units found measurable quantities of a nerve gas Jan. 19, 1991, at three sites in northern Saudi Arabia.

The next day, Czechoslovak units measured mustard gas in the air near King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia. On Jan. 24th, the units discovered a small pool of a mustard-gas agent on the ground in the same area, according to U.S. officials.

The Pentagon continues to believe that no chemical weapons were used during the conflict.

ZTC The chemical agents measured all were discovered in Saudi Arabia, before the start of the allied ground war against Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait. The Czechs and Slovaks have reported no measurements of such agents after the allied attack began.

"We have no evidence that the Iraqis or anybody else used chemical weapons during that war," said Edwin Dorn, a U.S. assistant secretary of defense.

"We don't know. We're looking at all the sources," he said. "Right now, everything is possible, but we do not believe that anyone used chemical weapons."

Czech newspapers have speculated widely about the origin of the gasses. Currently in favor are theories that the emissions came from U.S. or Saudi stockpiles, or that the gasses were released when U.S. planes bombed Iraqi chemical weapons plants.

Mr. Shelby denied that the United States had any chemical agents on hand in the Persian Gulf region during the war.

Although senior Pentagon officials have acknowledged that allied planes attacked suspected chemical depots in southern Iraq during the period when the Czech discoveries were made, they do not believe the bombing caused chemicals to drift southward into Saudi Arabia.

Prevailing winds were moving northwest, away from Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Les Aspin told reporters last month.

There also were no signs of heavy civilian casualties, large chemical clouds or severe contamination at the bomb sites, which would have been required to explain the trace levels found by the Czech units "hundreds of miles" to the south, he said.

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