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Afghan Taliban Deny Using White Phosphorus

KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan's Taliban has rejected a U.S. military accusation that the insurgent group was using white phosphorus ammunition.

The U.S. military said on May 11 it had documented 44 incidents of Afghan insurgents using or possessing white phosphorus ammunition, in response to a Reuters report last week of the first known casualty from the chemical.

U.S. and NATO forces acknowledge they use the chemical -- which erupts into flame on contact with the air -- to create smokescreens, illuminate the battlefield, or destroy empty buildings, but they deny knowingly using it on people.

Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the Islamist group, ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, did not use it at all.

"We neither have nor use phosphorus. The Americans have used it in many operations and now want to attribute their tyranny to the Taliban," he said by phone from an undisclosed location.

In a statement posted on the militants' website, the Taliban offered to cooperate with any possible investigation to show they were not using the material.

White phosphorus has legal uses on the battlefield and is not banned by treaties that restrict the use of chemicals as weapons, but it can cause horrific burns if it comes in contact with flesh. Its use to deliberately target people is illegal, and its use in populated areas is a persistent source of controversy.

Reuters reported last week that U.S. military doctors had confirmed they had treated an 8-year-old girl with white phosphorus burns in hospital. Her case was not on the list the military released on May 11.

In the girl's case, the military says it believes no rounds fired by Western forces fell near her house when she was hurt, and that a mortar fired by militants may have been to blame.

The girl's father told Reuters their house was hit by a volley of artillery fired by Western troops. Human Rights Watch has urged the military to release more details of the incident.

In the May 11 list of 44 incidents, Western forces reported insurgents had actually fired the rounds in just 11 cases. In eight, they were used or found in homemade bombs.

In the 25 other cases, they were found unused, usually scattered among caches of other weapons and ammunition. White phosphorus is common in the arsenals of most armies, including the Soviets who fought in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.

Since Reuters published its account last week, Afghanistan's human rights commission has said it is investigating whether white phosphorus played a role in an incident last week in which Afghan officials say scores of civilians were killed.

That incident, in western Farah Province, prompted President Hamid Karzai to demand a halt to all U.S. air strikes, something Washington says it cannot do.

Many of the victims in the Farah incident had severe burns. The U.S. military acknowledges bombing two villages after participating in ground fighting nearby, but says it did not fire any white phosphorus ammunition in the battle.