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

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

He did not provide evidence in his address, and the Pentagon said it was not able to confirm the Ukrainian leader’s allegation when contacted by NBC News. It is difficult to verify the claims without U.S. personnel on the ground, three U.S. 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 substance phosphorus is highly toxic and “notorious for the severity 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 soluble in fat, meaning it grievously burns human flesh.

“If it lands on somebody, it burns very, very vigorously,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the United Kingdom’s and NATO’s chemical, biological and nuclear defense forces.

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

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

What does the law say?

The use of white phosphorus is not outright banned under international weapons law.

It is not illegal for militaries to possess it, and armed forces around the world (including U.S. troops) have said they use it to mark a target or create a smokescreen, according to David E. Johnson, a military expert with the Rand Corp.

But like all weapons, it is illegal to use against civilian targets, and the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas is prohibited under Protocol III, Johnson said.

“Going after civilian targets indiscriminately is the biggest war crime there is, no matter what the weapon,” he said.

Where has it been used?

Human Rights Watch says munitions containing white phosphorus have been deployed “repeatedly” over the last 15 years, including by U.S. and U.K. forces in Iraq; American-led coalition forces against Islamic State terrorist group’s 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 “horrendous images from northeast Syria last year of children being terribly, badly burned.”

White phosphorus munitions have also been used by Saudi Arabian-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.

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