Use of white phosphorous in Syria may be war crime, says Amnesty

By agency reporter
June 19, 2017

The US-led coalition’s recent use of white phosphorus munitions on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was unlawful, and may amount to a war crime, Amnesty International has said after verifying five videos of the incident.

The videos, published online on 8 and 9 June, showed the coalition’s artillery using the munitions over the civilian neighbourhoods of Jezra and el-Sebahiya. The videos clearly show different angles of a white phosphorus air-burst and the same areas being targeted by burning elements of white phosphorus landing on low-level buildings.

International humanitarian law prohibits the use of white phosphorus near civilians, and repeated use of white phosphorous in circumstances where burning elements are likely to come into contact with civilians also violates international humanitarian law. 

According to local monitoring group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” and other local sources, at least 14 civilians were killed in one of the strikes. The Slaughtered Silently activists told Amnesty that, in addition to the local civilian population, many internally-displaced people from western Raqqa were also seeking refuge in the areas at the time of the attack. 

According to Amnesty’s analysis, the white phosphorus artillery projectiles in the footage are most likely US-made 155mm M825A1s. The US-led coalition has confirmed its recent use of white phosphorous in the Iraqi city of Mosul but has yet to confirm white phosphorous use in Raqqa. In Mosul, the coalition claimed it used white phosphorous to create a smokescreen to assist civilians in their escape from areas of the city under the control of the Islamic State armed group. Fighting has been intensifying in Raqqa as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the US-led coalition are pushing to gain control the city from ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped in and around Raqqa and Amnesty is monitoring the conduct of all parties to the conflict in the city. 

White phosphorus is most often used to create a dense smokescreen that can obscure the movement of troops from enemy forces, and to mark targets for further attack. While its use for such purposes is not prohibited, extreme caution is warranted whenever it is deployed, and it should never be used in the vicinity of civilians. 

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, said, “The US-led forces must immediately investigate artillery strikes on Jezra and el-Sebahiya and take all possible measures to protect civilians.The use of white phosphorus munitions by the US-led coalition gravely endangers the lives of thousands of civilians trapped in and around al-Raqqa city, and may amount to a war crime under these circumstances.  It can cause horrific injuries by burning through flesh and bone and can pose a threat even weeks after being deployed by reigniting and burning at extremely high temperatures.

The use of white phosphorus in densely-populated areas poses an unacceptably high risk to civilians and would almost invariably amount to indiscriminate attacks. Force protection must not take priority over protection of civilians. US-led coalition and SDF forces must refrain from using powerful explosive weapons and imprecise weapons in populated areas and take all possible measures to protect the civilian population.”

* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

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