An ecological disaster was unfolding yesterday after NATO missiles ripped apart a combined petrochemical, fertilizer and refinery complex on the banks of the Danube River north of Belgrade.
A series of detonations that shook the city early yesterday morning sent a cloud of smoke and toxic gases hundreds of metres into the sky where they were considered to be relatively safe. Among the gases reported to be billowing above thousands of homes were chlorine, hydrochloric acid and phosgene.
Workers at the industrial complex in Pancevo decided to release tonnes of ether dichloride, a powerful carcinogen, into the Danube rather than risk seeing it blown up. At least three missiles strikes left large areas of the plant crippled, and oil and gasoline from the damaged refinery coursed into the river, forming slicks up to 20 kilometres long.
Scientists warned people to stay indoors and to avoid fish caught from the Danube. They said the pollution would spread downstream to Romania and Bulgaria and then into the Black Sea. At least 50 residents of Pancevo were reported suffering from phosgene poisoning and health ministry workers tried to round up gas masks for belated protection. Residents were told to breathe through cloth soaked in water and bicarbonate of soda as a precaution against showers of nitric acid and nitrogen compounds.
Thirteen hours after the first explosions, the Yugoslav army took journalists to the Pancevo site.
«This plant is 37 years old and has never witnessed anything like it. This is our worst nightmare,» said plant director Miralem Dzindo. [An ethnic Muslim] «The sickness of the minds that did this to us is enormous. By taking away our fertilizer they stop us growing food, and then they try to poison us as well.»
He said the plant's production was strictly non-military, and noted that the warehouses had been largely empty when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization struck, because the attack had been expected and many chemicals and compounds had been moved to underground bunkers.
Still, the Serbian environment minister, Dragoljub Jelovic, accused NATO of trying to destroy the whole Yugoslav environment. He said pollution in the Danube and in the atmosphere above Belgrade «knows no frontiers.»
«If NATO continues to attack us like this there is no future,» he said. «A vast part of Europe is in danger. Those who ordered this crime do not have the minimum of sense.»
Mr. Dzindo took journalists around the huge plant complex, advising reporters to put handkerchiefs over their faces as they were shown two destroyed fertilizer storage areas.
The choking air burned the eyes and nostrils and many reporters refused to get off the tour bus.
Slobodan Tosovic, a physician and toxicology expert, said the worst gases had been released after a cruise missile burst into a part of the plant where plastics were made. «Not even Reagan when he attacked Libya ordered missiles against this sort of facility,» Dr. Tosovic said, adding that the explosion had produced phosgene-caronyl chloride, along with carbon monoxide and hydrochloric acid.
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