Bioterror fever reaches Baltics

  • 2001-10-18
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The anthrax scare reached the Baltics this week as three letters containing suspicious white powder were delivered to media and government offices in Lithuania, hot on the heels of similar mailings laced with the fatal disease in the United States.

Two letters containing white powder are also being tested for anthrax in Estonia.

In Lithuania, the first letter was received by the daily newspaper Respublika Oct. 15 while the second and third were sent to the U.S. Embassy and the Lithuanian presidential office in Vilnius Oct. 16.

All three letters are being investigated by a microbiology laboratory in Vilnius.

Respublika employee Ona Stankeviciute, who was sorting mail for the newspaper, almost tossed out the letter containing what looked like washing detergent.

"I did throw the letter in the trash. Only later I did remember about letters containing anthrax being sent to journalists in the United States. Then I informed my bosses about it," said Stankeviciute, who is also being tested for exposure to the virus.

The anthrax scare follows a slew of germ warfare incidents in the United States.

On Oct. 15, a package that tested positive for the potentially deadly anthrax bacteria was opened at the Washington office of Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, U.S. President George W. Bush announced. The office was immediately quarantined and staffers were examined and treated.

Anthrax spores were also found in mail sent to a Microsoft Licensing office in Reno, Nevada, NBC's New York City offices and American Media, Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida.

Preliminary results indicate there was no bacteria in the letter received by Respublika, said Kazimiera Rutiene, head of the microbiology laboratory. "I think it's a prank," she told Lithuanian national radio.

In addition to the white powdery substance, the letter received at Respublika had the words "Jihad Humma" written on it, while the other two letters were inscribed just with "Jihad."

"The word 'jihad' in these letters looks like a child's handwriting. It is written on school notebook pages and looks like someone's foolish entertainment," Rutiene added. A resident of Jarva county in central Estonia received an envelope from a mail order company which contained unknown powder Oct. 13, but did not notify the local rescue center until Oct. 15, local radio station Kuma reported.

Vladimir, 43, and his 71-year-old mother disregarded the crystalline powder in the envelope until they heard that a similar case had surfaced at a post office in the southwestern resort town of Parnu.

The post office staff informed the local rescue center Oct. 15 that white powder was spilling from an envelope addressed to a casino company based in the city.

Preliminary tests on the Parnu envelope have come back negative for anthrax.

The Social Affairs Ministry cautioned residents of the country against opening suspicious mail and advised people contact the rescue service with even the least suspicion. There were no reports of similar incidents in Latvia.

Despite bioterrorism scares around the world, some politicians think the Baltics are fairly low on terrorist hitlists, far behind Western European and North American targets.

"I would say that the first victims might be the United States and Britain. The second category is Germany and maybe France. Lithuania is in some fourth or fifth category, according to my opinion," said Lithuanian MP Nikolaj Medvedev, a Social Democrat.

Estonian Minister of Social Affairs Eiki Nestor echoed his assessment of the risk level in the Baltic states, but urged adequate security precautions.

"Although Estonia is not an area where the risk is the biggest, it has to be taken into account," he told the Baltic News Service.

Anthrax hoaxes have affected countries around the globe. An envelope containing white powder and a note reading "Regards from Afghanistan" was sent to an Israeli newspaper, while postal workers in South Korea now wear gas masks and gloves while checking incoming international mail with metal detectors and x-ray machines.

Other scares have included Italy, Germany and a suspect package delivered to the London Stock Exchange.

Lithuanian officials say the country cannot afford to ignore the potential impact of terrorist acts like the anthrax-laced letters in the United States.

"Lithuania should start to prepare for such attacks. There are only 3,000 vaccines against anthrax in Lithuania at the moment," said Stanislovas Buskevicius, an MP from the Young Lithuanians Party.