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12 May

United States Phosphorus Bombs

Chemical burns probe after Afghan battle

By Jason Straziuso and Rahim Faiez, Associated Press, Monday, 11 May 2009
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Afghanistan’s top human rights group said it is investigating whether white phosporous was used in a US-Taliban battle that killed scores of people, which could further deepen controversy over an incident that has already sparked public anger.
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Doctors have said villagers wounded in the fighting had “unusual” burns.

The American military yesterday denied using the incendiary in the battle in Farah province — which President Hamid Karzai has said killed 125 to 130 civilians — but left open the possibility that Taliban militants did. The US says Taliban fighters have used white phosphorus, a spontaneously flammable material that leaves severe chemical burns on flesh, at least four times the last two years.

Using white phosphorus to illuminate a target or create smoke is considered legitimate under international law, but rights groups say its use over populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitutes a war crime.

Afghan doctors told The Associated Press they have treated at least 14 patients with severe burns the doctors have never seen before. The villagers were wounded during last Monday’s battle in Farah province.

Allegations that white phosphorus or another chemical may have been used threatens to deepen the controversy over what Afghan officials say could be the worst case of civilian deaths since the 2001 US invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.

In Kabul on Sunday, hundreds of people marched near Kabul University to protest the US military’s role in the deaths.

The incident in Farah drew the condemnation of Karzai, who called for an end to airstrikes. The US has said militants kept villagers captive in hopes they would die in the fighting, creating a civilian casualties controversy.

However, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser said Sunday the United States would not end airstrikes. Retired Gen. James Jones refused to rule out any action because “we can’t fight with one hand tied behind our back.”

Along with Afghan and US investigations into the battle, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has been looking into concerns that white phosphorus may have been used after strange burns were reported. Nader Nadery, a commissioner in the leading rights organization, said more investigation was needed.

“Our teams have met with patients,” Nadery told AP. “They are investigating the cause of the injuries and the use of white phosphorus.”

White phosphorus is a spontaneously flammable material that can cause painful chemical burns. It is used to mark targets, create smoke screens or as a weapon, and can be delivered by shells, flares or hand grenades, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

Human rights groups denounce its use for the severe burns it causes, though it is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a signatory.

The US military used white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. Israel’s military used it in January against Hamas targets in Gaza.

Col. Greg Julian, the top US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said the US did not use white phosphorus as a weapon in last week’s battle. The US does use white phosphorous to illuminate the night sky, he said.

Julian noted that military officials believe that Taliban militants have used white phosphorus at least four times in Afghanistan in the past two years. “I don’t know if they (militants) had it out there or not, but it’s not out of the question,” he said.

A spokesman for the Taliban could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The US military on Saturday said that Afghan doctors in Farah told American officials the injuries seen in wounded Afghans from two villages in the province’s Bala Baluk district could have resulted from hand grenades or exploding propane tanks.

Dr. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of the burn unit at the Herat Regional Hospital in western Afghanistan who has treated five patients wounded in the battle, described the burns as “unusual.”

“I think it’s the result of a chemical used in a bomb, but I’m not sure what kind of chemical. But if it was a result of a burning house — from petrol or gas cylinders — that kind of burn would look different,” he said.

Gul Ahmad Ayubi, the deputy head of Farah’s health department, said the province’s main hospital had received 14 patients after the battle, all with burn wounds. Five patients were sent to Herat.

“There has been other airstrikes in Farah in the past. We had injuries from those battles, but this is the first time we have seen such burns on the bodies. I’m not sure what kind of bomb it was,” he said.

UN human rights investigators have also seen “extensive” burn wounds on victims and have raised questions about how the injuries were caused, said a UN official who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations. The UN has reached no conclusions about whether any chemical weapons may have been used, the official said.

Afghan officials say up to 147 people may have died in the battle in Farah, though the US says that number is exaggerated………………………………………………..

Afghan girl’s burns show horror of chemical strike

Reuters Emma Graham-Harrison
Article

White Phosphorous Bombs

Life as 8-year-old Razia knew it ended one March morning when a shell her father says was fired by Western troops exploded into their house, enveloping her head and neck in a blazing chemical. Skip related content

Now she spends her days in a U.S. hospital bed at the Bagram airbase, her small fingernails still covered with flaking red polish but her face an almost unrecognisable mess of burnt tissue and half her scalp a bald scar.

“The kids called out to me that I was burning but the explosion was so strong that for a moment I was deaf and couldn’t hear anything,” her father, Aziz Rahman, told Reuters.

“And then my wife screamed ‘the kids are burning’ and she was also burning,” he added, his face clouding over at the memory.

The flames that consumed his family were fed by a chemical called white phosphorous, which U.S. medical staff at Bagram said they found on Razia’s face and neck.

It bursts into fierce fire on contact with the air and can stick to and even penetrate flesh as it burns.

White phosphorus can be used legally in war to provide light, create smokescreens or burn buildings, so it is not banned under international treaties that forbid using chemicals as weapons.

Colonel Gregory Julian, a spokesman for the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, confirmed that Western forces in the country use the chemical.

“In the case of white phosphorus it is used on the battlefield in certain applications … It is used as an incendiary to destroy bunkers and enemy equipment; it’s used for illumination.”

But U.S. military training manuals say firing it at people is illegal. Its use in populated areas has been a persistent source of controversy.

Razia and her family are the first known civilian casualties of its use in Afghanistan.

WHO FIRED?

Rahman said the shell that burnt his daughter landed after a firefight near their house in the eastern province of Kapisa. The NATO-led international force there is made up mainly of French troops, with U.S. support.

“(Western) troops were on the road, the Taliban were on the mountain and we were at the house, sandwiched between them. When the Taliban began retreating, they fired artillery at them, 12 rounds. One hit my house,” Rahman said.

A spokeswoman for the NATO-led force rejected Rahman’s account, saying an internal investigation into the incident concluded that it was “very unlikely” the weapon that hit Razia’s house was theirs, because of the timing and location.

U.S. Major Jennifer Willis suggested instead that the Taliban had fired the shot: “An enemy mortar team, known to have been operating in that area, may have been responsible.”

The Afghan government, military specialists and experts on the Taliban told Reuters, however, that insurgents have never been observed using white phosphorus. The only forces on the battlefield known to use it are the United States and NATO.

“I am not aware that the Taliban have used this in any of their attacks,” said Zaher Murad, a Defence Ministry spokesman.

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan-based author of a widely acclaimed book on the hardline Islamists, said that he was also not aware of such reports.

The use of the chemical for illumination and concealment of troop movements suit the tactics of foreign forces in a hostile environment, but it would be of little use to insurgents who know the terrain and can blend into the civilian population.

“To think they (the Taliban) are employing white phosphorus as a weapon in their arsenal is very far-fetched,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and a former senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon.

“The U.S. has optics that will allow them to see through the smoke, so it is useless for (the Taliban). They don’t need to illuminate because that is telegraphing to the United States where they are going to go and fight. Plus they know the area.”

“They want high explosive to shock and kill; flames raining down from the sky aren’t going to frighten the U.S. forces.”

NATO spokeswoman Willis said insurgents had been observed using white phosphorus weapons in the past. Asked to provide examples of the Taliban using the chemical, she wrote back to say that she was unable to do so.

The Taliban also denied that they used it. “This is not true, it is just a mere allegation,” said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

NEVER NORMAL

When Rahman saw his daughter on fire, he rushed her out to the yard, where he put out the flames with water stored to mix mud for a new wall. Her hair came away in clumps in his hand.

He raced inside and found two other children dead from head wounds. He hoisted Razia on his back and staggered towards the local base where soldiers arranged a U.S. airlift that almost certainly saved her life.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, a U.S. military paediatric surgeon who has been treating Razia, confirmed Razia was hit by white phosphorous and had burns to 40 percent of her body.

“The way we treat that is with skin grafts … (but) because her burns were so extensive we had to allow some of those donor sites to heal first, so we would go back to take skin from the same place more than once,” Fitzpatrick said.

Razia, who did not want her picture taken, is now suffering mentally as well as physically.

“My daughter is really sad and really lonely and she misses her family and mother. When I call home in the afternoon … she talks with her mother and is always saying ‘mum, I miss you.'”

Rahman says he is grateful for the medical help she has received from U.S. doctors, and reserves his anger for the provincial governor who visited his daughter but who offered no comfort, saying only “she will never get a husband.”

When she leaves the hospital she will face an uphill struggle to rebuild her life. Although doctors say it may be possible to reduce her disfigurement, U.S. help may one day be cut off.

“It’s never going to be normal, but there is still certainly room to improve on what she has,” Fitzpatrick said.

“We would like to be able to offer her things down the line, but a lot of that just depends on the tempo of the war … Obviously our primary mission is to support our troops.”

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Peter Graff and John Chalmers)

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