Nerve gas found at U.S. Uzbek base

Lee Keath,BAGRAM, Afghanistan, AP

Traces of nerve agents and mustard gas have been found in three locations at a U.S. base in Uzbekistan, including a hangar where a headquarters had been set up, U.S. military officials said Sunday.

Thousands of U.S. troops have moved through or been stationed at Karshi Khanabad, a former Soviet air base now used as a staging ground to support the campaign in Afghanistan. No soldier has reported symptoms of exposure to the contaminants, U.S. Col. Roger King said.

The traces are suspected to have come from chemical weapons once stored by the Soviet Union at the base, King said. The contamination was thought to be “left over from a much earlier time,” he said.

Any exposure to the traces would be “low-level,” Col. Doug Liening, chief surgeon at Bagram air base, said.

King said a team of experts conducting a routine inspection detected two sites contaminated by nerve agents — one Friday in a bunker at the edge of the base, the other Saturday in a hangar where a headquarters had been set up with many people working nearby.

Mustard gas traces were found Saturday in a hangar being used by the Air Force for maintenance.

All U.S. troops have been moved away from the sites. King could not say how many might have come near them contamination since U.S. forces moved into the base in the Central Asian nation north of Afghanistan last fall.

Officials were trying to discover the source of the vapors detected by the teams, which may be from chemical weapons agents that spilled and soaked into the ground, said Maj. Chet Kemp, a nuclear, chemical and biological officer at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.

“There is no proof that (the contamination) was placed there recently,” Kemp said. Instead, dormant agents may now be emitting fumes because of hotter weather, Kemp said. He did not rule out that chemical weapons were buried under the sites and were leaking.

“The central concern now is to identify possible hazard to U.S. troops,” he said. Monitors have been placed around the sites, and so far there was no sign the contamination had spread beyond their immediate areas.

It was not yet known how long the agents had been a hazard.

Officials were trying to determine which units may have been near the contaminated site “to see if there’s anyone who could qualify as a potential exposure. So far our efforts have not revealed anyone who might fall into that category,” Liening said.

“We don’t have any patients from this exposure. No one to the best of our knowledge has gotten sick,” he said.

Late last year, Karshi Khanabad was one of the main hubs for launching operations in Afghanistan and up to 5,000 troops were based there. The number now is less than 1,000, said King, a spokesman at Bagram, the headquarters for the Afghan campaign.

Military health teams first surveyed the base last fall for contamination and found nothing. They returned this week for a more definitive survey and were told by Uzbek officials that Soviet troops once stored chemical weapons there, King said.