The first chronology of the path of ammonium nitrate, suspected to have been at the origin of the double explosion in Beirut on Tuesday, allowed several media outlets to trace a ship leaving Georgia in 2013.
The story that led to the tragic double explosion on Tuesday, August 4 in Beirut begins more than six years ago, 1,300 kilometers from the Lebanese capital, according to several media and court documents. On September 29, 2013, the ship Rhosus, which was flying the Moldovan flag, left the port of Batumi, Georgia, with 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on board. It never arrives at its intended destination, Mozambique, where the cargo would be sold to the Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a factory that produces explosives for civilian use.
This ammonium nitrate, suspected of being involved in a disaster that claimed at least 137 victims and 5,000 injured, should never have ended up in the now infamous warehouse 12 in the port of Beirut. But a mix of ship mismanagement, technical problems and administrative and legal complications seems to have sealed the fate of this cargo, which was used both in agriculture as a fertilizer and by the mining industry as an explosive.
From Georgia to Lebanon via Greece
The Lebanese authorities have not yet released the conclusions of the official investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy. But several media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN and the German week Der Spiegel, were able to join the various actors in this affair to arrive at a first chronology of facts.
Rhosus belonged to Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman based in Cyprus who had been paid one million dollars to transport ammonium nitrate to Mozambique, a told the New York Times, Boris Prokoshev, the captain of the boat.
This plan quickly took hold. During a stopover in Greece, the crew was warned by the Russian owner of the boat that they lacked the means to pay for maintenance costs and wages. He asked them to go to Beirut where he planned to get paid to transport more cargo, tells Der Spiegel.
The crossing was not easy. The ship seems to have been in poor condition: a hole in the hull forced the crew to regularly empty the infiltrating water, says Boris Prokoshev, the captain now retired.
Stick to “a liquid bomb”
The stop at the port of Beirut, in November 2013, will prove to be final. The Lebanese port authorities, under the control of Rhosus, confirmed that the paper was not in order and that the boat was not in a condition to resume the sea, CNN note that contacted the Russian sailors. In addition, Igor Grechushkin then disappeared from circulation, and the crew did not have the resources to pay the shipping costs.
Then begins the second stage of Calosary of Rhosus. Without money to buy food or maintain the boat, the sailors found themselves “hostage to a floating bomb”, wrote in July 2014 le Fleetmon website, which follows freight news.
In fact, Lebanon had allowed six crew members to leave the country and only four people – including the captain – were present. Boris Prokoshev said he contacted the Russian embassy and “wrote to [Vladimir] Putin ”to try to find a way out of this situation. “What are you hoping for? That Putin is sending special forces to get you out of there? “, Replied one of his interlocutors.
In desperation, Boris Prokoshev sold part of the Rhosus fuel to be able to afford to hire lawyers to bring an action, he told Echo Moscow’s radio on Wednesday 5 August. Eleven months after arriving in Beirut, the sailors finally won the courts the right to return home, said Charbel Dagher, one of the lawyers representing the crew, to the ShipArrested website in July 2015.
The 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate will then be transferred to warehouse 12 in the port of Beirut, from where they will no longer move. Port officials say they have repeatedly warned the Lebanese authorities of the danger of keeping such a stockpile of highly explosive products in a single hangar so close to central Beirut.
Between 2014 and 2017, six unsuccessful requests were made to Lebanese courts for permission to dispose of ammonium nitrate, the New York Times said. “We reaffirm our request to the Maritime Administration to be able to immediately export these products in order to preserve the security of the port and all those who work there,” reads a letter from 2016 received by the Qatari information chain Al-Jazeera.
The port authorities also claim that they have offered to offer this cargo to the Lebanese army or resale to a company that specializes in the production of explosives. Again without success. “We were told it was going to be an auction, but it never took place,” Hassan Koraytem, head of the Port of Beirut, told the New York Times.
Six months ago, a team of inspectors had once again sounded the alarm that there was enough ammonium nitrate “to blow up the entire city,” Reuters said in quoting an anonymous gate source.
Meanwhile, all port officials who “took care of the storage of ammonium nitrate, ensured its security and filling administrative documents since 2014” have been placed under house arrest for the duration of the investigation, Manal Abdel Samad, the Lebanese information minister, said.
And Rhosus in all this? Boris Prokoshev, the ship’s captain, was told that she sank in 2015 or 2016 in the port of Beirut. He never really left the stage either. But unlike ammonium nitrate, it disappeared quietly and without being the source of one of history’s worst non-nuclear explosions.