‘We are aware of social media reports which claim Russian forces deployed a potential chemical munition in Mariupol, Ukraine,’ Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said. ‘We cannot confirm at this time and will continue to monitor the situation closely.’
‘These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine,’ said Kirby.
President Joe Biden has previously warned there is a strong possibility that Russia could deploy a chemical arsenal and warned there would be ‘severe’ consequences if they do so.
The British government and other western allies are also investigating claims that Vladimir Putin’s army deployed a chemical agent that sickened a handful of people in Mariupol as Russian forces try to take control of the city.
Pytor Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city government, said local officials believed that some chemical had been dropped by a drone on the Azovstal steel plant, a stronghold for Ukrainian forces defending the city. They said it was unclear whether it was intended to be lethal.
He said that it might be something like tear gas, but that they could not be certain.
‘It is absolutely correct information that yesterday from a drone, something was dropped in that area and some chemical things were in it,’ he told The New York Times. ‘But we don’t know for sure if it was poison or something else.’
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said it was possible phosphorus munitions – which cause horrendous burns but are not classed as chemical weapons – were used.
Meanwhile, a senior American defense official told reporters on Tuesday the U.S. can’t confirm the reports because they don’t have people on the ground in Mariupol.
‘The biggest challenge is we’re not there,’ the official said, adding they have not been able to talk to locals on the ground.
The Pentagon is closely monitoring reports of a possible Russian chemical weapons attack on the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol
Russian forces are trying to take the city of Mariupol; local officials say more than 10,000 civilians have been killed
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he ‘had no other choice’ but to launch what he calls a ‘special military operation’ in the area
Putin, who has not been able to take the capital, has been building up forces for a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region.
On Tuesday he said Russia ‘had no other choice’ but to launch what he calls a ‘special military operation’ in the area, claiming it was to protect civilians in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas.
Mariupol lies in the Donbas region and has been razed in six weeks of pummeling by Russian troops. Local officials said the bombing has left more than 10,000 civilians dead.
The British government is also looking into the allegations that chemical weapons were used.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Downing Street was working ‘urgently’ to verify details of the alleged attack and, if it were true, then Putin would be held accountable.
‘Reports that Russian forces may have used chemical agents in an attack on the people of Mariupol. We are working urgently with partners to verify details,’ she wrote on Twitter.
‘Any use of such weapons would be a callous escalation in this conflict and we will hold Putin and his regime to account.’
Concerns were also raised after Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the Kremlin-backed, separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, urged Moscow to bring in ‘chemical forces’ to use in Mariupol.
He said on Russian television that the remaining Ukrainian forces in Mariupol were dug in at the steel plant and that Russia should encircle it and ‘smoke out the moles.’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seized on the report and warned his people to prepare for a ‘new stage of terror against Ukraine.’
‘The occupiers issued a new statement, which testifies to their preparation for a new stage of terror against Ukraine and our defenders. One of the mouthpieces of the occupiers stated that they could use chemical weapons against the defenders of Mariupol. We take this as seriously as possible,’ Zelensky said in a video statement posted online Monday night.
‘I want to remind the world leaders that the possible use of chemical weapons by the Russian military has already been discussed. And already at that time it meant that it was necessary to react to the Russian aggression much tougher and faster,’ he added.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his people to prepare for a ‘new stage of terror against Ukraine’
President Joe Biden has previously said there would be ‘severe’ consequences if Russia used chemical weapons
The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in Mariupol but could not confirm them.
‘We know that last night around midnight a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell,’ he told CNN.
In March, Biden said the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated. But he did not detail what the consequences would be for Russia if it made such a move.
American officials have expressed concern that Russia could use chemical weapons as it struggles to make progress in the war.
‘I’m not going to speak about the intelligence but Russia would pay a severe price if they use chemical weapons,’ Biden said.
Biden has also said the U.S. would respond ‘in kind’ to such an attack. His national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that meant ‘we’ll respond accordingly’ and that Russia would pay a ‘severe price.’
Russia has wielded chemical weapons in the past. Moscow used the deadly Novichok poison in 2018 an attempt to assassinate a defector living in Salisbury, England. And it is suspected of using a similar poison against opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020.
Russia also offered diplomatic cover to Syrian use of chemical agents. It accused the West of being behind the 2017 attack on Khan Shaykhun with Sarin or similar nerve agent.