In Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition has admitted — for the first time — to using white phosphorus during operations in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“We have utilized white phosphorus to screen areas within west Mosul to get civilians out safely,” New Zealand Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan tells NPR. He estimates that around 28,000 civilians have managed to make the dangerous crossing out of Islamic State territory in the past few days alone.
Coalition spokesmen previously have confirmed the use of the incendiary substance in less-populated areas of northern Iraq in the fight against ISIS. But this is the first confirmation that white phosphorus has been used in Mosul.
McAslan says Iraqi forces backed by the coalition have retaken almost 90 percent of western Mosul — the last holdout of the extremists in Iraq’s second-largest city. But ISIS still controls a densely populated enclave, where the U.N. says tens of thousands of people remain and have been used as human shields.
The U.N. Human Rights Council says it has received credible reports that ISIS increasingly is targeting civilians as they try to flee, leaving more than 230 dead in recent weeks.
The coalition admission comes amid fresh allegations that white phosphorus also is being deployed in the fight for Raqqa, Syria. There, the U.S. is backing an alliance of Kurdish and Arab partner forces to seize that city from Islamic State control. Those forces have made gains in recent days, pushing into the city for the first time since the campaign began.
In recent days, the ISIS-affiliated media outlet Amaq released a video purporting to show white phosphorus raining down on Raqqa by night. Amnesty International says it has not yet been able to verify the Amaq footage, but is urging U.S.-led forces to refrain from using white phosphorus in Raqqa and its surroundings, where civilians remain trapped. The rights group says the risk to civilians is “unacceptably” high, and could potentially count as a war crime.
The Amaq video prompted rare unity in condemnation from both supporters and opponents of Syria’s regime. One supporter tells NPR that contacts inside Raqqa are desperate for leaflets from the coalition telling them where to shelter amid the bombing campaign.
Tom Bowman contributed to this report.