A Lebanese lawmaker revealed evidence on Wednesday that customs officials tried to get the government to secure a stash of ammonium nitrate, a combustible material, at least six times and received no guidance.
Lebanese authorities believe the nitrate was responsible for Tuesday’s deadly blast in Beirut.
As of Thursday, authorities have tallied 157 deaths and 5,000 injuries after a massive explosion reduced much of the Beirut port district to ashes this week. Multiple eyewitness videos show a large fire near the shore that consumed much of the area before erupting and taking down blocks of buildings and shattering the windows of those left standing. Authorities estimate that 300,000 people are now homeless.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in an address late Tuesday that authorities had traced the blast to the high concentration — nearly 3,000 tons — of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the area. The material had been there, he added, since officials confiscated it from a ship seized at the port in 2013. For nearly eight years, it appears no one attempted to move the material to a less populated and more secure place.
“What happened today will not fly by without accountability. All those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Diab said. “This is a promise I make to martyrs and injured. This is a national commitment.”
President Michel Aoun announced Wednesday that police would place all officials responsible for storing and securing confiscated materials at the Beirut port under house arrest if they executed that responsibility between 2014 and Tuesday.
On Thursday, Lebanese banks also received orders to freeze any assets affiliated with Beirut Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem and Lebanese Customs Director-General Badri Daher.
Adding to evidence of negligence, lawmaker Salim Aoun published documents on Twitter that he claimed were letters from customs officials in Beirut to the court responsible for the seizure of the ammonium nitrate. According to the New York Times, the officials wrote the court “at least six times from 2014 to 2017” asking how to dispose of the material, or at least remove it from the densely populated port area. They never received an answer and the material stayed in place.
بإنتظار نتيجة التحقيق لمعرفة الحقيقة الكاملة ولتحديد المسؤولية، يمكننا من خلال الإطلاع على هذين الكتابين الموجهين إلى قاضي الأمور المستعجلة، معرفة جزء مهم من الحقيقة.
الأول بتاريخ ٢٠ أيار ٢٠١٦ من قبل المدير شفيق مرعي، والثاني بتاريخ ٢٨ كانون الأول ٢٠١٧ من قبل المدير بدري ضاهر. pic.twitter.com/qhEUCLMYqN
— Salim Aoun (@SalimAoun) August 5, 2020
The Times also shared that a local broadcaster interviewed Koraytem, the general manager of the Port of Beirut, on Wednesday who confirmed, “We have been waiting for this to be resolved for six years, in vain.”
The Lebanese outlet al-Akhbar relayed that Daher, the customs chief, similarly insisted that the negligence apparently leading to the explosion did not begin with him, insisting that he had done “more than [his] duty” to responsibly tend to the ammonium nitrate.
Al-Akhbar added information of reports regarding what exactly led to the ammonium nitrate blowing up. Initially, some Lebanese officials claimed on Tuesday that the fire was the result of an accident at a fireworks factory. Officials subsequently changed their story, and some Lebanese outlets reported construction of some kind happening near the warehouse storing the explosive material; there is no evidence any construction crew in the area would know that they were working near highly combustible material.
Welding work overheated an area near the explosive material, al-Akhbar claimed, allegedly resulting in the detonation of the ammonium nitrate.
Senior-level Lebanese officials have not confirmed this report.
The ammonium nitrate reportedly originated in a Russian-owned ship, the MV Rhosus, which made an unannounced stop in Beirut in 2013 allegedly en route to Mozambique. The ship has since reportedly sank, but its former captain Boris Prokoshev confirmed to Radio Free Europe (RFE) that it had been carrying tons of ammonium nitrate when Lebanese officials confiscated its cargo and seized the ship. Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin reportedly owned the ship; according to Prokoshev, Grechushkin stopped paying them shortly before the seizure.
“They were being greedy,” Prokoshev told Reuters in a report published Thursday, adding the detail that he and his crew spent almost a year on the ship while docked in Beirut, largely because officials did not want to leave its combustible cargo alone.
“The cargo was highly explosive. That’s why it was kept on board when we were there … That ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration,” Prokoshev said.
The ammonium nitrate was reportedly heading to Mozambique to be used by Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique (FEM), a company that specializes in manufacturing commercial-grade explosives and never meant to stop in Lebanon.
“Aware that the manufacture of explosives is an activity that requires high standards of control, the Fábrica de Explosivos Mozambique directed its strategy for progressive improvement, skill development of their employees focusing constantly on their training and qualification, profitability of resources based on the most up to date technology, never losing its highest
point – safety,” the firm’s website explains.
FEM has not made any public comments regarding the incident in Lebanon.
Lebanese officials have insisted no evidence exists of a terrorist attack or intentional detonation, a claim that the general population appears to have accepted. Lebanon has experienced months of protests throughout the past year against its government for assorted accusations of incompetence – the collapse of the economy, a lack of consistent access to electricity, and failure to offer basic government services like garbage collection in an appropriate manner.
“For me, this state is a dump — and on behalf of yesterday’s victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump,” Melissa Fadlallah, a Beirut resident volunteering to help clean up the city on Wednesday, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). At the time, AFP said the city was noting a marked “absence of a state-sponsored cleanup operation.”
“If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?” she asked.