Saudi Arabia appears to be using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions in its war in Yemen, based on images and videos posted to social media, raising concerns among human rights groups that the highly incendiary material could be used against civilians.
Under U.S. regulations, white phosphorus sold to other countries is to be used only for signaling to other troops and creating smoke screens. When the munition explodes, it releases white phosphorus that automatically ignites in the air and creates a thick white smoke. When used against soldiers or civilians, it can maim and kill by burning to the bone.
It is unclear exactly how the Saudis are using the munitions, but the government has already received widespread condemnation for its indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas since its campaign against rebel forces in Yemen began in 2015.
U.S. officials confirmed that the American government has supplied the Saudis white phosphorus in the past but declined to say how much had been transferred or when. After reviewing a social media image taken from the battlefield that showed a white phosphorus mortar shell, a U.S. official said it appeared to be American in origin but could not trace it to a particular sale because some of the markings were obscured.
“The United States expects any recipient of U.S. military assistance to use those items in accordance with international law and under the terms and conditions of any U.S. transfer or sale,” said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive issues.
The official said the department was looking into reports of Saudi forces’ improperly using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions. “If a country is determined to have used U.S.-provided weapons for unauthorized purposes, the U.S. will take appropriate corrective action,” the official said.
The United States has grown increasingly wary of its material support to the Saudi military. In May, the Obama administration halted the sale of roughly 400 cluster bombs to the Saudis after human rights organizations documented the weapons’ use in civilian areas. This week, lawmakers on Capitol Hill moved to delay a $1 billion arms deal that would replace some of Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-supplied tanks that have been damaged in the conflict.