Zelenskyy accused Russia of using phosphorus bombs. What does that mean?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces of using phosphorus bombs in their latest wave of attacks on his country, telling NATO leaders in Brussels that “people were killed,” including children.

“Europe is going through a war that is full of war crimes by Russian troops every day,” Zelenskyy said, according to a translation of NBC News. “This morning I received information that Russian troops used phosphorus bombs against civilians in Ukraine.”

He provided no evidence in his address, and the Pentagon said it was unable to confirm the Ukrainian leader’s claim when contacted by NBC News. It would be difficult to verify the claims without US personnel on the ground, three US defense officials said.

But if true, the use of white phosphorus bombs would add a disturbing new dimension to Russia’s military assault on Ukraine. Here’s a general overview of their destructive potential.

What is white phosphorus?

The white form of the chemical phosphorus is highly toxic and “notorious for the seriousness of the injuries it causes,” according to information compiled by Human Rights Watch, a leading watchdog organization.

White phosphorus ignites on contact with oxygen and is highly fat soluble, meaning it is hard to burn human flesh.

“When it lands on someone, it burns very, very fiercely,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the UK and NATO chemical, biological and nuclear defense forces.

Munitions – artillery shells, bombs, rockets, mortars – containing white phosphorus function similarly to incendiary weapons as defined in Protocol III to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons:

They start fires and cause burns “by the action of flame, heat, or a combination thereof produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered at the target.”

US Marines prepare for Fallujah offensive
White phosphorus smoke screens are fired by the U.S. Army as part of an early morning patrol November 6, 2004 on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq.Scott Nelson/Getty Images file

What does the law say?

The use of white phosphorus is not strictly prohibited under international firearms law.

It’s not illegal for military personnel to possess, and armed forces around the world (including US troops) have said they use it to mark a target or create a smoke screen, according to David E. Johnson, a military expert the RAND Corp.

But like all weapons, it’s illegal to use them against civilian targets, and the use of airdropped incendiary weapons in populated areas is prohibited under Protocol III, Johnson said.

“The indiscriminate crackdown on civilian targets is the greatest war crime in existence, by any weapon,” he said.

US: War on Gaza
Phosphorus smoke from explosions in the Gaza Strip provides cover for Israeli ground forces at the Israel-Gaza Strip border near Sedrot, Israel, on January 17, 2009. Warrick Page / Redux file

Where has it been used?

Human Rights Watch says white phosphorus munitions have been used “repeatedly” over the past 15 years, including by US and British forces in Iraq; US-led coalition forces against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria in 2017; and by Israel in Gaza in 2008-09.

Syrian forces (with Putin’s support) have used white phosphorus to set fire to towns and villages, de Bretton-Gordon said, describing “horrific images from north-eastern Syria over the past year of children being horribly, badly burned.”

White phosphorus ammunition was also used by Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen in 2016; by NATO-allied security forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2011; and by Ethiopian forces in Somalia in 2007, according to Human Rights Watch.

Dan de Luce contributed.

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