What are white phosphorus bombs? All we know about incendiary weapons Russia accused of using in Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky alleges Russia has fired highly-flammable chemical, often used as a battlefield smoke screen, to attack civilians as conflict rumbles on

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg says if Russia uses chemical weapons it ‘will change the nature of the conflict’

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As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second month, having proved to be anything but the formality Vladimir Putin appears to have expected, concerns grow that the invading forces could resort to the use of chemical weapons to secure victory.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky alleged at a summit of Nato leaders in Brussels last week that white phosphorus munitions had already been fired on civilians in his country’s cities.

“This morning, by the way, phosphorus bombs were used. Russian phosphorus bombs. Adults were killed again and children were killed again,” he said.

US president Joe Biden warned at the same gathering that the outbreak of chemical warfare was “a real threat” while Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg declared that any such action would “be a blatant violation of international law”, “have far-reaching consequences” and “totally change the nature of the conflict”.

Mr Zelensky’s comments followed Oleksiy Biloshytskiy, deputy head of Kyiv’s police force, tweeting a video on Monday 22 March showing a smouldering rocket lodged in the ground with the comment: “Another use of phosphorus ammunitions in Kramatorsk.”

Ukrainian officials had already accused Russia of deploying white phosphorus in attacks on the cities of Lutsk in the west and Popasna in the east.

Cluster munitions are also alleged to have been fired on Ukrainian targets since the war began on 24 February while the UK’s Ministry of Defence has said that the Kremlin itself has admitted to using thermobaric rockets.

White phosphorus fired over Damascus, Syria, in March 2018

White phosphorus is a yellowish or colourless translucent substance, wax-like in texture and smelling faintly of garlic, which ignites immediately on contact with oxygen in the air, creating a bright plume of smoke.

It cannot be put out with water and burns at up to 1,300C.

The acid is commonly used in warfare to create smoke screens to conceal troop movements, to illuminate the battlefield at night or to mark targets and, because of these practical applications and the fact that it is not explicitly intended to target the body’s life systems, is not currently recognised as a chemical weapon under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

However, it can certainly be used as an incendiary weapon to maim, poison or kill indiscriminately and is known to cause instant scarring of the lungs, heart, liver and kidneys and to be capable of burning through muscle to the bone, often causing severe second and third-degree burns that typically require skin grafts.

“Incendiary weapons cause devastating burns, and in far worse ways than any of the standard scald or fire burns,” Dr Rola Hallam, a physician who treated victims of chemical warfare in Syria, is quoted as saying in a report by Human Rights Watch. “They can burn through everything. If they can burn through metal, what hope does human flesh have?”

Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons does explicitly prohibit the use of white phosphorus as a weapon against civilian populations, drawing a distinction between combatants and non-combatants, which means that the protocol is only breached if the latter group is fired upon.

Article 35 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions meanwhile rules that any weapon that causes “superfluous or unnecessary suffering” is outlawed, which could be applied to the indiscriminate firing of white phosphorus and potentially constitute a war crime.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

Nevertheless, it has been used in precisely that way on a number of occasions in recent years, notably by the US-led coalition at the Battle of Fallujah during the Iraq War in 2004, by Israel in Gaza in 2008/09, by Russia against the people of Aleppo during its intervention in the Syrian civil war of 2016 and in the fight against Isis in Mosul in 2017.

“This is part of the horror of war,” lamented RAND Corporation researcher and Army veteran David Johnson in conversation with Insider recently. “These weapons were developed for military purpose. And, quite frankly, they’re going to be used.”

White phosphorus was deployed in both the First World War and Second World War and colloquially known as “WP” or “Willy Pete”.

Its legacy can still be felt: in August 2017, a woman passing the banks of the River Elbe near Hamburg plucked what she believed to be a nugget of amber from the wet sand and tucked it into her coat pocket, only for it to catch alight, the explosive revealing itself and the pedestrian only narrowly escaping serious injury.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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