The UK and US governments are being pressed for straightforward assurances that weapons involving depleted uranium will not be used in the bombing of Libya. British ministers have been accused of contradicting each other on the issue.
The MP John McDonnell has today (31 March) written to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking for an urgent clarification.
The Prime Minister appeared to improvise a new UK policy last week, when he stated in Parliament that UK forces: "do not use those weapons and are not going to use those weapons".
But the Ministry of Defence has reiterated its formal position that "DU [depleted uranium] anti-armour munitions will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future because we have a duty to provide our troops with the best available equipment with which to protect them and succeed in conflict".
The clarification is being sought after confirmation that US A-10 aircraft were in action over Libya on 26-27 March. The A-10 can fire depleted uranium armour piercing ammunition from its rotary gun, and it has been confirmed that this gun was used to attack two Libyan boats which were reported to be firing at merchant vessels.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) insisted that "the likelihood of DU use in Libya has now increased" following the use of the A-10s. On 25 March, a senior US officer speaking on behalf of the US Department of Defence said that he was "not aware of any use of depleted uranium".
The UK Uranium Weapons Network and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) insisted that the use of A-10 aircraft "threatens both Libyan opposition forces and civilians". ICBUW called on the US authorities to "take steps in a clear and transparent manner to assure the world that no US aircraft will go into the air equipped with DU ammunition, and that pilots will not be cleared to fire it".
In his letter, John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, asked David Cameron to give assurances that these planes were not using depleted uranium and to put pressure on the US administration to ensure it would not be used.
He ended his letter with the words, "The stated purpose of our actions in Libya is to protect civilians. This will not be accomplished if we, or our allies, use depleted uranium weapons."
CND insist that the use of radioactive and chemically toxic depleted uranium ammunition poses a long-term threat to the health of civilians in areas where they are used. Sharp increases in the rates of cancers and birth defects have been reported following their use in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.