UN investigates alleged use of white phosphorus in Syria
UN chemical weapons inspectors have announced they are gathering information following accusations that burning white phosphorus was used by Turkish forces against children in Syria earlier this week.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Friday morning that “it was aware of the situation and is collecting information with regard to possible use of chemical weapons”.
The Kurdish Red Crescent said in a statement that six patients, both civilian and military, were in hospital in Hasakah with burns from “unknown weapons” and it was working to evaluate what had been used.
It said it could not confirm the use of chemical weapons and was “working together with our international partners to investigate this subject”.
A British chemical weapons expert sent photographs from a former colleague of a child with a badly burned torso in a frontline hospital said he thought it was likely they showed chemical burns.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the UK’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment, said: “The most likely culprit is white phosphorus. It is a horrific weapon, and has been used repeatedly during the Syrian civil war; unfortunately its use has become increasingly normalised.”
White phosphorus is routinely held by militaries around the world and is used legally in combat as a smokescreen in daytime and as an incendiary to light up an area at night. But it is illegal to use it against civilians, because it causes serious and exceptionally painful burns on contact with skin.
Kurdish officials accused Turkey of using “unconventional weapons” in the conflict on Thursday – a few hours before the US-brokered ceasefire was announced – and called international inspectors to examine the injured.
A member of the Rojava diplomacy office on Friday said it had documented a number of suspicious cases and restated calls for international organisations to investigate since it lacked capacity on its own.
Turkey said the accusations were false. Hulusi Akar, the defence minister, said: “It is a fact known by everyone that there are no chemical weapons in the inventory of the Turkish armed forces.”
The incident is alleged to have taken place in or around the border town of Ras al-Ayn but there are few confirmed details about what happened and whether civilians were deliberately targeted. White phosphorus is most commonly used to tip artillery shells, whose fire can often be inaccurate.
The OPCW said it had “not yet determined the credibility of these allegations” and that the chemical weapons inspectorate would continue to monitor the situation.
On Thursday evening, Turkey and the US announced a 120-hour ceasefire to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw 20 miles from the 300-mile border with Turkey, although some fighting on the border is continuing.