Russia has been caught using incendiary weapons in Syria by its own TV channel Russia Today, which later tried to edit the footage out of its broadcast.
The Kremlin has previously denied that its warplanes were carrying these bombs, which are restricted by an international convention.
The English-language news station, which is funded by Moscow, broadcast footage of Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, visiting Hmeymim airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia last Saturday.
A pilot can be seen next to a plane loaded with munitions marked with identifying numbers.
Experts from Human Rights Watch, and Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source intelligence group based in Russia, concluded that it showed incendiary weapons mounted on a Su-34 ground attack aircraft – specifically RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM bombs.
They said they believed the weapons contained a metal powder fuel known as thermite that ignites while falling, which has led witnesses of attacks to describe them as “fireballs.” It is the hottest burning man-made substance in the world.
Because of the flammable content, incendiary weapons cause excruciatingly painful burns and start fires that are hard to extinguish.
The Geneva Convention defines incendiary weapons as “primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target.”
The use of thermite has been reported in civilian areas of Aleppo in northern Syria, where Russia has been conducting regular air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad in anticipation of a ground assault to retake the city from rebel groups.
A day after the RT broadcast, a residential neighbourhood in Hayan was hit by what appeared to be a “fireball” explosion.
“It looked like a bright shower raining down,” an activist in Aleppo told the Telegraph, which was backed up by a video recording. “It happened at night and the whole sky lit up. The buildings were burning for many hours after.”
A number of other videos, posted online by activists inside Syria, show similar attacks in the last month.
Syria’s government meanwhile has ignored calls to join the protocol and has used incendiary weapons on multiple occasions since 2012.
The five-second segment in RT’s report showing the weapons was removed after the analysts published their findings.
Anton Vorontsev, a spokesman for Russia Today, confirmed that a certain part of the video had been cut, but said it had been done because it had shown a Russian fighter pilot, who, it was feared, could be exposed to security risks as a result.
“There was never any intention to censor the video,” he said. The full unedited version was later reinstated on the website.
CIT however accused Russia Today of “covering up war crimes”.
Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, who helped identify the weapons, told the Telegraph the use of incendiary munition in this way “is a much bigger problem for Russia.”
“We have seen these munitions used before in the conflict, since late 2012. But the interesting aspect here is that Russia appears to be the one dropping them.”
Mary Wareham, the advocacy director at Human Rights Watch’s arms division, said: “The best way to avoid civilian harm is to follow the letter of international law and not use incendiary weapons in civilian areas.”
Source: The Telegraph