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Lebanon: Chronicle of a tragedy foretold

By Laurent De Saint Perier
Posted on Tuesday, 18 August 2020 18:02

Lebanon Explosion
A man uses his phone to take a picture of the site of the 4 August explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

From the port authorities to President Michel Aoun and the Ministers of Justice and Transport, everyone had access to the file on the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was being stored in the port of Beirut. And all of them are now blaming each other for the 4 August tragedy.

Beirut, 4 August, 6:07 pm. From the port, which stretches at the foot of the city centre, a fire monster fuses and turns into a vaporous sphere that swells into something both terrifying and fascinating.

In an apocalyptic roar, a tidal wave of compressed gas engulfs the Lebanese capital, smashing everything in its path, warehouses, cranes, trees, cars, building facades, old buildings. The blast shatters all the windows of buildings within a radius of several kilometres.

Windows are blown out of the Lebanese Electricity Company building that was damaged in thr explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Many Beirutans, surprised by the first explosion 35 seconds earlier, observe and film the fire that has been raging for half an hour before in the port area.

Apocalypse

They are riddled with shrapnel, thrown to the ground or raised against the walls by the force of the explosion, like thousands of other city dwellers who were going about their daily business without suspecting the cataclysm that was about to descend in the heart of Beirut during a late summer afternoon.

From Hangar number 12, the most phenomenal explosion ever heard in the Lebanese mountains reverberates, which are no stranger to the raucous caused by war and bombs.

More than 170 are killed and less than half of the medical facilities are able to treat the 6,000 injured from the blast.

The homes of 330,000 people are devastated.

The large silo that used to hold Lebanon’s grain reserve is ripped open, overlooking Hangar 12 from 50 metres above the ground. It was built as a bulwark and protected one side of the city, like the sea which absorbed a large part of the shock wave. Without this double protection, the disaster would have been much more deadly.

Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

It was soon reported that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a salt that detonates in unstable conditions and is used as a fertilizer or as a supplement to explosives, had been stored in the shed since 2013.

Instead of the warehouse, satellite photos show a flooded crater 120 metres in diameter and 43 metres deep. It could engulf the Grand Seraglio, the imposing Prime Minister’s palace that dominates the city centre. Six days later, the social shock wave created by the disaster brought down the government of Hassan Diab, which had only been in power since January.

The cursed freighter

The detonation, which produced a shock equivalent to a seismic shock of 3.3 on the Richter scale, was heard as far as the island of Cyprus, 200 km away. Did it reach the ears of Igor Grechushkin, the Limassol-based Russian businessman who brought the infernal cargo to Beirut and abandoned it there on 21 November 2013?

On 6 August, the owner of the Rhosus, now called “the floating bomb,” was heard by the Cypriot police at the request of the Lebanese authorities. The only published photo of him shows a smiling 50-year-old man in jeans, t-shirt and dark glasses riding a Harley-Davidson, more of a steroid jet-setter than a well-groomed businessman.

Originally from Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, he set up his offices on the Mediterranean island, a logistics hub with advantageous tax conditions. But it was via a company registered in the Marshall Islands, the Teto Shipping Company, that he bought the Rhosus in May 2012 from a Cypriot businessman.

The Rhosus was Grechushkin’s first ship, and in the same year she began sailing under the flag of Moldova, known for its complacency of safety standards.

The 86-metre freighter, built in Japan in 1986, has changed its name four times and ownership at least eight times. In July 2013, the Russian’s new acquisition was detained in Seville by an inspection by the port authorities, which found 14 deficiencies.

Floating bomb

To the press, the Russian captain Boris Prokoshev, who took the freighter to Beirut, revealed that a waterway required the holds to be permanently pumped out: the floating bomb was already a garbage ship, often the first choice of shipowners. Grechushkin did not insure it, escaping the expense and control of insurance.

In September 2013, he was offered one million dollars to transport 2750 tonnes of highly concentrated ammonium nitrate from the Rustavi Azot plant in Georgia to the Fabrica des Explosivos plant belonging to the Moura Silva e Filhos company in Matola, Mozambique, via the port of Beira. A $700,000 shipment in 2013.

On 27 September 2013, the Rhosus set sail from the port of Batumi with the dangerous cargo packed in one-tonne bags. She made a stopover in Piraeus, Greece, where Captain Boris Prokoshev, hired for the occasion, noted that Grechushkin was not doing well financially, as he refused to pay for two thirds of the supplies ordered by the crew.

Moreover, the crew had not been paid for four months.

The Rhosus sets off again, heading to Mozambique but soon after, the shipowner ordered the captain to make an unscheduled stopover in Beirut: the loading of heavy machinery bound for Jordan would pay for the passage through the Suez Canal.

But upon arrival on 21 November in Beirut, the machinery on board had been so heavy that it deformed the corroded hatches in the Rhosus’ bunkers. The captain refuses the perilous cargo, but his freighter will not go much further.

The ship will sink, abandoned in a corner of the port, four years later, because the Lebanese port authorities have forbidden Prokoshev to set sail again.

The captain and three crew members are stranded on board for 11 months by immigration authorities. They are fed by port staff, and eventually sell some of their fuel so they can hire a lawyer and finally return home.

The Russian shipowner disappears, abandoning the boat, its cargo and its men. He declares bankruptcy thereby avoids paying repairs, harbour dues and salaries.

At the end of 2014, the port authorities seize the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and store it in Hangar 12.

Great carelessness

“People here don’t often question the responsibility of the shipowner, everything revolves around how and why this cargo stayed here for six years”, says Georges Haddad, a researcher at the Synaps think tank, based in Beirut.

The cargo may have remained hidden for six years in Hangar 12, but it was never forgotten.

Customs, port authorities, their supervisory ministries of Finance and Transport, the judge in summary proceedings, the Ministry of Justice, State Security, even the Prime Minister and the President, all had on hand the file of the deposit in Hangar 12 until the eve of the tragedy. Today, they are all blaming each other like a grenade with its pin pulled.

As of 27 June 2014, the interim relief judge taken over by the Ministry of Transport, had ordered the ammonium nitrate to be stored ashore “by taking the necessary measures in view of the hazardous material present on board the ship”.

The Customs Department, which now controls the stockpile, had applied five times between 2014 and 2017 to the interim relief judge for authorization to re-export it or sell it to the Lebanese Explosive Company, considering its dangerousness and “the risks it poses to employees”.

No action is taken: the judge declares himself incompetent and refers the case to the legal department of the Ministry of Justice.

“However, the customs authorities were competent to destroy these dangerous goods,” laments Peter Germanos, government commissioner at the military court in Beirut until last February.

“I am not responsible”

In January 2020, a faulty door and a hole in the hangar are reported. A judicial inquiry is then conducted, the conclusions of which were alarmed by the hazardous content of the stockpile and the fact that terrorists could seize it.

They describe a “highly flammable liquid nitroglycerin-like material oozing” from the hangar and warn, “if ignited, this material will cause a huge fire with consequences that could almost completely destroy the port.

But the report is not sent until late May to the prosecutor and the harbour management, who react without much conviction. On 20 July, two weeks before the tragedy, State Security sends a private letter containing these conclusions to both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

“I am not responsible,” the head of state replied to the press a few days after the tragedy, adding “I do not have the authority to deal directly with the port.” Like his prime minister, he had therefore sent the report to the Defence Council, which in turn alerted the public works ministry on 3 August, the day before the disaster.

He then urged the port authorities to carry out the repair work that had been requested over the past three months. According to official statements, a team was then sent to carry out repairs, including welding, one hour before the explosion.

Powder fire and smoke screens

Contrary to the first official declarations stating the stock of fireworks were kept in a nearby warehouse number 9, they were in fact kept in Hangar 12, normally reserved for seized goods. Just adjacent to the ammonium nitrate were “gunpowder, fireworks and buckets of paint,” a security source confided to AFP.

On the video footage of the fire that preceded the big explosion, crackling sparks in the smoke escaping from the hangar seem to confirm the blaze of fireworks. Ammonium nitrate, even highly concentrated ammonium nitrate used to make industrial explosives, such as Nitroprill HD from Georgia, is not an explosive in itself.

But its gasification, when heated to over 290°C, releases large quantities of oxygen which accelerates initial combustion. When the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate reached this point, a tremendous amount of oxygen was released producing the colossal explosion.

“Welding sparks from the welding works were able to ignite a slow fuse or other slow-burning materials, eventually setting fire to a more flammable stock that caused the ammonium nitrate to react and cause the great explosion,” explains Paul Khalifeh, a journalist and correspondent for several French media outlets in Beirut.

Ammonium nitrate, even when used to make explosives, is stable enough to be transported over long distances,” says Grégory Robin, a former French soldier and explosive device specialist at the Institute for Prospective Studies and Security in Europe (IPSE). What we see in the videos is consistent with an accident, a chain reaction where an initial fire causes a first explosion that detonates a second charge. Afterwards, what started the powder fire, accident or intention? It’s hard to say at this point.”

But the blast of the explosion had barely subsided when thousands of Lebanese were already sure it was an Israeli bombing. Many witnesses claim to have heard the sounds of fighters preceding the explosion and the Lebanese president brought water to the mill, declaring three days later: “There is the possibility of outside interference such as a missile, a bomb or some other means”.

President Trump himself deplored as early as August 4 “a terrible attack” and the explosion “of some kind of bomb”, before his administration came to temper his certainties.

Images of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu brandishing a map of Beirut in September 2018 at the United Nations tribune pointing to supposed Hezbollah hideouts were shared massively: one of the three points indicated seems to be the port.

But a quick look reveals that this is the area of the airport, far from the city centre and on the edge of the southern suburbs where Hezbollah reigns supreme. Hezbollah has denied possessing weapons in the port, and Israel, which regularly violates Lebanese airspace to bomb targets in Syria, has denied any responsibility, when it is accustomed to keeping silent when its real bombings are reported.

As for the sounds of jets heard, the experts point out that the initial fire of explosives produced hissing noises that could have been mistaken for those of a drone or bomber engine.

A complex investigation

After his meeting with the French President Emmanuel Macron, the Lebanese President also said that he had asked him “to provide us with aerial images so that we can determine whether there were aircraft in the airspace or missiles”.

Asked whether these images had been delivered and what they showed, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, assuming that “it may not be intended to be public”, referred us to the Presidency of the Republic, from which we received no reply.

In Beirut, a security source confirmed that Lebanon had received detailed satellite images, without revealing their origin: “They do not show any air intrusion”.

The very nature of the explosion has given rise to extreme accusations: the deadly mushroom cloud was characteristic of a tactical nuclear bomb, which Israel possesses, and the red smoke could only have come from chemical weapons stockpiled by Hezbollah.

Smoke is seen after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. Talal Traboulsi/via REUTERS

“It is a normal detonation wave,” notes the explosive device specialist, “materialised by the vapours and fumes from combustion”; as for the red ochre feather, it has the characteristic colour of the nitrous vapours that are released during the combustion of ammonium nitrate.

“Only a serious investigation will be able to determine what caused the explosion. If Israel participated in it, it will only add an actor to the list of culprits, the main ones being those who had long been aware of the stockpile and its dangerousness, and did nothing for six years,” says Georges Haddad of Synaps.

Is such an investigation possible in Lebanon, where dozens of attacks against high-ranking personalities have never been solved? In Beirut on 6 August, the French President called for an international investigation, which was rejected the next day by President Aoun.

Multiple connections

Investigations are now being carried out by Attorney General Ghassan Oueidat, whose investigation in January highlighted the deterioration of the dangerous stockpile and Hangar 12.

“The investigation has multiple international connections, the port of departure and destination of the ship, etc. Not to mention the fact that its owner as well as Europeans and diplomats have died. The points of connection with international law are numerous and the investigation could reveal new ones. There is a need for an international investigation at the technical level that leaves it up to the Lebanese judge to make a sovereign decision,” recommends former government commissioner to the military tribunal Peter Germanos.

Shortly after the tragedy, 16 people were detained. “They included officials of the Beirut Port Authority Board of Directors and the Customs Administration, and maintenance workers and (workers) who had carried out work in Hangar 12.

It was not for their benefit that the Beirut demonstrators erected gallows and guillotines in Martyrs Square on 5 August, but for the benefit of the entire political class that has been sharing power for 30 years and of which, through its corruption, incompetence and carelessness, has caused a devastating economic crisis and, on 4 August, the destruction of the heart of Beirut.

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