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Cablegate: Kosovo: Allegations of Poisoning Albanian Students Cause

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PP RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDBU RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA
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RUEHYG
DE RUEHPS #0427/01 2741816
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 011816Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY PRISTINA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9320
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 1213
RUFOADA/JAC MOLESWORTH RAF MOLESWORTH UK
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 1737
RHFMIUU/AFSOUTH NAPLES IT
RHMFISS/CDR TF FALCON
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
RUEPGEA/CDR650THMIGP SHAPE BE
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RUEAWJA/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHDC
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY WASHDC
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUZEJAA/USNIC PRISTINA SR

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PRISTINA 000427

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

DEPT FOR EUR/SCE, EUR/PGI, INL, DRL, PRM, USAID

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KV
SUBJECT: KOSOVO: ALLEGATIONS OF POISONING ALBANIAN STUDENTS CAUSE
FOR ALARM

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED - PLEASE PROTECT ACCORDINGLY.

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Dozens of Albanian students from three schools in
Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje have been admitted to Pristina's
University Hospital over the past two days with complaints of
dizziness, fatigue, and loss of consciousness amid media speculation
that the students were the victims of intentional poisoning. All of
the stricken students first developed symptoms while attending
classes at two schools in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje, a Pristina
suburb. This is still a dynamic situation, and facts remain
unclear, but our understanding, based on conversations with hospital
officials, is that whatever illnesses the students have experienced
are psychosomatic, not the result of poisoning. Nonetheless,
reports of poisoning hold particular salience for Albanians, many of
whom attribute an unsolved public health incident in 1990 among
Albanian school children to a deliberate attempt by Serbs to poison
their children. While Albanians are worried about poisoning, Serbs
are concerned that Albanians may respond to press speculation about
the incident with violent demonstrations directed at their
communities. In the last few hours, we have been in contact with
the Prime Minister's office, the Ministry of Health, and the
hospital, advising them to issue fact-based statements about the
incident aimed at calming public concerns. We have also been in
touch with EULEX and KFOR and urged both institutions to be mindful
that whatever the facts of the case, an irrational fear among both
communities could drive reactions to it. END SUMMARY

ALLEGATIONS OF POISONING
------------------------

2. (SBU) On September 30, 18 Albanian students at an elementary
school in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje were admitted to the hospital
after complaining of dizziness, fatigue, and loss of consciousness.
The students attended a school that instructs both Albanian and Serb
students. The incident occurred in the late afternoon during an
Albanian shift at the school. No Serb students were affected by the
mysterious illness. All of the Albanian students were later
released from the hospital, but media reporting centered on the
image of crying mothers speculating about their children's health
amid rumors of intentional poisoning.

3. (SBU) On October 1, dozens of additional students from two other
schools in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje complained of the same symptoms
and were transported to Pristina's University Hospital. As of 1600,
hospital sources told us that 102 patients had been admitted to
various departments: 36 to the hospital, 63 to the Infectious
Disease Center, and two to the Pediatric Center. Minister of Health
Alush Gashi told us that the majority of the patients were Albanian
girls born between 1991 and 1993, that by 1800 the hospital had
released all but 16 of the patients, and that doctors could find no
evidence of any serious ailment, including any evidence of
poisoning. The Ministry of Health has sent sanitary and health
inspectors to the schools in question. Both Gashi and the
hospital's director have told us that they believe today's event is
due to "mass hysteria."

HISTORICAL CONTEXT
------------------

4. (SBU) In March 1990 a similar case of alleged poisoning occurred
at a school in Podujeve/Podujevo and affected scores of students.
Following the incident, Serbs in Podujeve/Podujevo faced hostility
from Albanians in the community, and there were reports that up to
50 Serbs suffering brutal beatings at the hands of Albanians. Over
the ensuing weeks similar reports of alleged poisoning followed from
other schools across Kosovo. At the time, girls reported symptoms
more frequently than boys. The 1990 incident remains unsolved to
this day, but many Albanians believe that Serbs deliberately
poisoned their children.

MEDIA COVERAGE
--------------


PRISTINA 00000427 002 OF 002


5. (SBU) This situation remains dynamic and local television media
are offering frequent updates about the incident that stress the
word "poison" and offer an ever-increasing count of the number of
affected students. Right now the media are operating with limited
information, but make constant use of the word "poison," which runs
the risk of heightening ethnic tensions. Images of scared parents
carrying their children from ambulances and private cars into the
emergency room have heightened the sense of panic. The Serb
Minister for Communities and Returns Sasha Rasic telephoned us late
in the afternoon to relate to us what he characterized as growing
concern within Serb communities that Albanians would lash out at
them over the incident.

GOVERNMENT REACTION
-------------------

6. (SBU) We have been in close contact with the Prime Minister's
office, numerous ministers, and the hospital throughout the
afternoon. We have advised them to issue fact-based statements that
avoid using provocative or inflammatory language. The aim, we have
stressed, should be to calm the situation and to allay fears among
both communities of a repeat of the events of 1990. Specifically,
we told the Prime Minister's office to use its statement to reframe
the issue and get away from unfounded allegations of poisoning that
could inflame passions and heighten the possibility of spontaneous
outbreaks of violence between Albanians and Serbs. The government's
statement did not refer to poison and treated the incident as a
public health event that was under control with relevant authorities
responding appropriately. In an effort to calm the situation, the
Ministry of Education told us that it plans to close schools
tomorrow in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje while the Ministry of Health
continues its inspection. We have also advised all parties to avoid
depicting the schools as a crime scene during their activities on
October 2.

COMMENT
-------

7. (SBU) As of 1900, the situation in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje is
calm, and KFOR's Liaison Monitoring Team (LMT) has personnel on the
ground alert for any public gatherings or demonstrations. The
concern at the moment is not about a poisoning incident. Thus far,
there is no evidence of poisoning, but we do not want to see a
frightened public lashing out at the Serb community in a misguided
search for revenge. We have stressed this point (and possibility)
to EULEX and KFOR as well. The health scare may not be an event,
but managing public perception will require further work, and we can
expect that the GOK on October 2 will turn to us and other
international partners for assistance in analyzing blood samples of
students admitted to the hospital. The GOK will also look for help
in reassuring a public that is prone to panic.
MURPHY

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