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Traces of Nerve Gas Found at Uzbek Base Used by U.S.

Military: Sabotage theory is discounted. About 5,000 American troops have been at the facility.

June 10, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — A routine environmental inspection turned up traces of nerve and mustard gas at a military base in Uzbekistan that about 5,000 U.S. troops have passed through since fall, military spokesmen here disclosed Sunday.

Although the origin of the contaminants remained a mystery, Bagram headquarters spokesman Col. Roger King played down the possibility that they might be evidence of terrorist sabotage. He suggested instead that the gases emanated from spills or chemical weapons leakage at the base, which was long used by the Soviet army.

Still, all U.S. personnel were evacuated from the areas near the discovered traces, and inspections by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, based in Landstuhl, Germany, have been ordered for all coalition locations in the region, including this sprawling command post north of the Afghan capital.

No U.S. soldiers have reported symptoms that would alert medical personnel to illness from exposure, said Col. Doug Liening, chief surgeon for the Coalition Joint Task Force, which has as many as 17,000 military personnel deployed in and around Afghanistan for the war against terrorism.

But further testing and inspections at the Uzbek facility will be necessary to determine how the contaminants got there, including a hangar in which the base headquarters staff works, the officers said.

The base, in the village of Karshi Khanabad, is being used by coalition forces as a staging ground for regional operations. It was reportedly swept last fall by U.S. environmental experts who failed to discover any hazardous elements.

"There's no proof that it was placed there recently," Maj. Chet Kemp, Bagram's deputy chief planner for nuclear, biological and chemical hazards, said of the nerve agents. Traces that were not detected in the autumn inspection might be detectable now because gases are dispersing in the intense seasonal heat of Central Asia, he added. Daytime temperatures across Afghanistan and in the parched Uzbek territory to the north regularly reach 120 degrees at this time of year.

"The central concern now is to identify possible hazards to U.S. troops," Kemp said, conceding that he would "have a little concern" about the potential health risks to anyone exposed to the nerve agent.

"We don't have any patients from this exposure," Liening said. "No one, to the best of our knowledge, has gotten sick."

The first nerve gas traces were detected in an unused bunker at the Karshi Khanabad base on Friday, and more extensive inspection of the former Soviet site turned up contamination at the hangar that has been reconstructed to serve as office space, King said. Mustard gas traces were detected in another hangar at the base Saturday.

King and the medical and hazardous-substance experts sought to tamp down fears of terrorist involvement, with Kemp noting that the discoveries were made in secure areas. But with determined Al Qaeda terrorists openly targeting U.S. forces in the hostile aftermath of Sept. 11, none of the officers was willing to rule out the possibility that the nerve agents were planted to endanger U.S. personnel.

On the other hand, Soviet troops were notoriously lax in safeguarding even the most dangerous weapons and compounds and left behind toxic wastelands at many of the bases they occupied during the Communist era. The Karshi Khanabad base was used by Soviet troops as a launch pad for their 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, during which they were accused of using chemical weapons against resistance forces.

How much of the substances are present at the base is unknown, said Kemp, who added that the vapors could be coming from buried chemical weapons that are leaking. Coalition forces were attempting over the weekend to find Soviet and Uzbek officers who might know more about what was stored at the base before U.S. troops took it over in October.

Liening said that too little is known about the risks of low-level exposure to such compounds, but he speculated that "the effects would be more pronounced after exposure" than months or years later. Symptoms would probably first be similar to those of the common cold, he said, but could escalate to include dilated pupils, muscular twitching and shortness of breath.

Asked if he feared a recurrence of the still-unexplained Gulf War syndrome, which has afflicted some veterans of that 1991 conflict with comparable symptoms of chemical or biological substance exposure, Liening dismissed the claims of a systematic problem as just "theories."

King said that the exact size of the U.S. deployment at Karshi Khanabad is classified but that the troop strength peaked at about 1,000 and is now slightly lower. Many of the personnel sent to the Uzbek base spent only a few weeks there before moving on to units elsewhere in the war theater.

In another indication of dangers still facing coalition troops waging war against the remnants of Al Qaeda and the deposed Taliban regime, U.S. troops arrested six heavily armed men before dawn Sunday in a village in Afghanistan's volatile southeastern region.

Two vehicles carrying the men, plus loaded AK-47 assault rifles, pistols, rocket launchers and ammunition, were stopped at a roadblock at 3 a.m. near the village of Shkin, King said.

U.S. troops were trying to identify the men and determine their motives, King said.

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