Russia Could Turn to Flesh-Burning Phosphorus Bombs in Mariupol, UK Warns

Russia may resort to using phosphorus munitions—incendiary weapons that can burn flesh—in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol after the weapons were allegedly deployed in the eastern region of Donetsk, the U.K.'s Ministry of Defense warned on Monday.

"Russia forces' prior use of phosphorus munitions in the Donetsk Oblast raises the possibility of their future employment in Mariupol as fighting for the city intensifies," the ministry said in its latest defense intelligence update issued on Twitter.

"Russian shelling has continued in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with Ukrainian forces repulsing several assaults resulting in the destruction of Russia tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment," the update added.

"Russia's continued reliance on unguided bombs decreases their ability to discriminate when targeting and conducting strikes while greatly increasing the risk of further civilian casualties."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry for comment.

Russian forces have been bombarding Mariupol for weeks, killing more than 5,000 civilians, according to the city's mayor, and devastating the strategic port city. But Ukrainian fighters are still doggedly resisting.

On March 21, the deputy head of Kyiv's police, Oleksiy Biloshytskiy, accused Russia of deploying white phosphorus munitions in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that accusation to NATO leaders later that week. Meanwhile. British channel ITV released footage of what it said is phosphorus burning in the dark sky over the northwestern suburbs of Kyiv on March 22.

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus is a toxic, wax-like substance that is yellow or colorless, made from phosphate rocks. It has a distinctive smell, and some have even said its odor is similar to garlic. When used as a weapon it rains down on targets, burning them. It can also create huge smokescreens, and once ignited, is incredibly difficult to extinguish.

It is not considered a chemical weapon under the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention but the use of phosphorus in war is meant to be tightly regulated under international law. However, it is considered illegal to use white phosphorus near civilians.

The United States military has admitted to using white phosphorus in the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, and in Afghanistan in 2009, NPR reported. There have also been accusations of U.S. and Russian forces using it in Syria. Israel also used it in the 2008 Gaza war, but said in 2013 it had stopped.

The United States has said that the use of chemical weapons in the Ukraine conflict would provoke an aggressive response.

Both the Ukrainian government and many Western nations, including the U.S., have accused Russian troops of committing war crimes.

Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv over the weekend, where he met with Zelensky.

After a private meeting between the two leaders, Johnson's government said in a statement that Britain will provide 120 armored vehicles as well as new anti-ship missile systems to the Ukrainian military. Johnson also pledged £100 million ($130 million) worth of equipment to Ukraine on Friday.

Mariupol dog walker
A man walks with his dog near an apartment building damaged by shelling from fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, in territory under control of the separatist government of the Donetsk People's Republic, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Russia may end up deploying chemical phosphorus munitions in Mariupol, after the munitions were allegedly deployed in Donetsk Oblast in the east, the U.K.’s ministry of defense warned on Monday. Alexei Alexandrov