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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Bombing Campaign Poisoned Environment

PANCEVO, Yugoslavia -- They call it "The Night of the Witches," those horrible hours that began at precisely 1 a.m. Apr. 18, when NATO bombs and missiles rained in force on Pancevo. Within seconds, they demolished a refinery, a fertilizer plant and a U.S.-built petrochemical complex that released a toxic cloud so dense and potentially lethal that its effects can be felt here even today - and will be, perhaps, for decades.

The sun did not shine the morning after, according to detailed municipal health department logs and video footage.

A thick, grayish-white fog containing concentrations of carcinogenic vinyl chloride monomer that were 10,600 times above human-safety limits had settled over the city at dawn and finally cleared only at nightfall on a day of horror the townsfolk have named for the Serbian equivalent of Halloween.

Nearly three months after NATO's devastating airstrike - and almost a month after it dropped the last bomb on Yugoslavia - here's a glimpse of the environmental nightmare left behind:

-Physicians in this city just 16 kilometers northeast of the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, Belgrade, have privately recommended that all women who were in town that night avoid pregnancy for at least the next two years. Women who were less than nine weeks' pregnant in mid-April were advised to obtain abortions, and doctors say most have complied.

-The canal leading from Pancevo's South Zone Industrial Complex is still awash with vinyl chloride, even after much of the 100 tons of cancer-causing chemical released from the Petro Hemija factory that night already have mixed into the waters, the riverbed and most likely the food chain of the mighty Danube River just downstream.

-The ground in and around Pancevo is saturated with ammonia, mercury, naphtha, dioxins and other toxins that leaked and burned out of the factories that night, raising questions about the long-term impact on a city struggling with day-to-day survival.

"Only in the next two years or 20 can I tell you what the full consequences of that night will be," Pancevo's pro-democracy Mayor Srdjan Mikovic said Monday.

Pancevo is hardly alone among the many environmental disasters that are legacies of NATO's war on Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia - 78 days of aerial assaults on power plants, factories, fuel refineries and storage tanks. The alliance said the attacks were intended to "degrade" Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's nation and war machine.

Amid the enduring degradation Monday, phones were ringing wildly in Dr. Slobodan Tosovic's office at Belgrade's Public Institute of Health, where the chief ecotoxicologist fielded questions and complaints from across the nation.

"It's enough to make me believe the Americans and NATO were making a biochemical experiment with us," said Tosovic, who wrote a paper during the war entitled "Aggression on Yugoslavia: Indirect Chemical Warfare."

But Monday, Tosovic downplayed the short-term toxic impact of the war.

"The fact is, we were quite lucky," he said. "We have the capacity to clean up the channel in Pancevo, and already we've cleaned up the worst-hit areas of the Danube and other rivers. There are no lasting air-pollution problems. And last week, we lifted the fishing ban on the Danube."

The Serbian Health Ministry, which includes Tosovic's department, has also issued an advisory urging doctors to stop recommending abortions and birth control - an issue with broad political and sociological implications in a nation where 10 years of war-induced poverty among delicately balanced ethnic groups have sent Serbian birthrates plunging.

"We begged these women not to stop their pregnancies, because we didn't want a biological war on top of a chemical one," Tosovic said.