What is white phosphorus? The 'horrific' weapon Putin is accused of using

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been accused of using white phosphorus bombs on Ukrainian civilians, an illegal weapon that could cause "horrific injuries to people".

Rumours have circulated online overnight with Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Education and Science Inna Sovsun saying it's a "crime against humanity", however such claims haven't been verified.

The attack was allegedly carried out in the town of Popasna in the eastern Luhansk region, and while the chemical is not considered a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention, according to iNews, there are some situations where using it can be considered a war crime.

White phosphorus leaves white smoke in the air and can be seen by people on the ground. Source: Twitter
White phosphorus leaves white smoke in the air and can be seen by people on the ground. Source: Twitter

What is white phosphorus and how is it used in war?

White phosphorus is a toxic substance produced from phosphate-containing rocks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Industries use white phosphorus to manufacture chemicals used in fertilizers, food additives, and cleaning compounds, it explains.

In the past, it was used as a pesticide and in fireworks.

In the military it is often used as a smokescreen to conceal troops from enemy forces. It is most commonly used to tip artillery shells, tracing their accuracy as it can be easily seen in the sky.

But Amnesty International's Nikita White explained on the ABC on Monday the dangerous chemical has the potential to "burn through muscles and bones", and it can be fatal.

International law reportedly prohibits the use of white phosphorus shells in heavily populated civilian areas, leading some to believe Mr Putin's alleged attack was a deliberate war crime.

When can it be considered a war crime?

While it's commonly used in war as a smokescreen, the deliberate use of the chemical can be considered a war crime "when it is found to have been used to deliberately target civilians".

"It can constitute a war crime because of the harm it inflicts on civilians," Ms White warned.

"What's particularly concerning with white phosphorus is that it can reignite weeks after it's been deployed and that means that even if it's used where civilians aren't present, when they move back into that area and the conflict has moved on, they may still face injuries from the use of white phosphorus."

Liudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman, reportedly shared a photo of the alleged attack insisting it was in fact "a war crime".

"The bombing of a civilian city by the Russian attackers with these weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity according to the Rome Convention," she wrote.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 23: (RUSSIA OUT): Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference at the Moscow Manege, on December 23, 2021, in Moscow, Russia. More than 500 journalists were invited to Vladimir Putin's end-of-year marathon press conference. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin has been accused of a war crime against Ukraine. Source: Getty

Can the white phosphorus claim be verified?

Ms White confirmed that amnesty and "a number of organisations are working around the clock to verify attacks in Ukraine".

White phosphorus creates a "white cloud" in the sky, she confirmed, so video evidence and "people on the ground" can verify that it was used.

However, Ms White pointed out that Russia hasn't been known to use this method of attack in other conflicts around the world, including in Syria, despite its attack on Ukraine so far emulating that of Syria with "the use and cost of ammunition" and "the bombs last week".

"We have never seen with the Russian military use white phosphorus in conflict so we hope that it won't be used in this one," she said.

Investigation is underway

Ms White confirmed an investigation in Ukraine is already underway.

So far, Russian military has repeatedly committed violations of international humanitarian war in the form of indiscriminate weapons, targeting civilian areas including hospitals and schools and "killing and injuring hundreds," she confirmed.

On Sunday, President Andrzej Duda said Russia's use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer" and NATO would have to "think seriously" about how to respond, according to the BBC.

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