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 vessel Rhosus, which flies the Moldovan flag, left the port of Batumi, Georgia, with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on board. It will never arrive at its intended destination, Mozambique, where the cargo was to be sold to the Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a factory that manufactures explosives for civilian use.
This ammonium nitrate, suspected of being at the origin of a disaster which left at least 137 victims and 5,000 wounded, should never have ended up in the now infamous warehouse 12 of the port of Beirut. But a mixture of mismanagement of the ship, technical problems and administrative and legal complications seem to have sealed the fate of this cargo, 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 issued the conclusions of the official investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy. But several media, including the New York Times, CNN and the German weekly Der Spiegel, were able to join the various players in this affair to arrive at a first chronology of the facts.
The Rhosus belonged to Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman living in Cyprus who had been paid a million dollars to transport ammonium nitrate to Mozambique, told The New York Times, Boris Prokoshev, captain of the boat.
This plan quickly took hold. During a stopover in Greece, the crew were warned by the Russian owner of the boat that they lacked funds to pay for maintenance costs and salaries. He asked them to make their way to Beirut where he intended to be paid to transport more cargo, reports 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, said Boris Prokoshev, the captain now retired.
Stuck on “a floating bomb”
The stop in the port of Beirut, in November 2013, will prove to be final. The Lebanese port authorities affirmed, during the control of the Rhosus, that the papers were not in order and that the boat was not in condition to resume sea, notes CNN which contacted the Russian sailors' union. 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 the Calvary of Rhosus. Without money to buy food or maintain the boat, the sailors found themselves "hostages on a floating bomb", wrote in July 2014 the Fleetmon site, which follows the news of freight.
In fact, Lebanon had allowed six crew members to leave the country, keeping only four people - including the captain - on site. Boris Prokoshev said he contacted the Russian embassy and “wrote to [Vladimir] Poutine” to try to find a way out of this situation. “What are you hoping for? That Putin send the special forces to get you out of there? ”, One of his interlocutors reportedly replied.
In desperation, Boris Prokoshev sold some of the Rhosus fuel to afford the means to hire lawyers to plead his case, he told Echo Moscow radio on Wednesday August 5. Eleven months after arriving in Beirut, the sailors finally won the courts the right to return home, Charbel Dagher, one of the lawyers who represented the crew, told the ShipArrested site in July 2015.
The 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate are then transferred to warehouse 12 in the port of Beirut, from where they will no longer move. Port officials say they have repeatedly alerted the Lebanese authorities to the danger of keeping such a stock of highly explosive products in a single hangar so close to downtown Beirut.
Between 2014 and 2017, six unsuccessful requests were made to Lebanese courts for permission to get rid of ammonium nitrate, the New York Times said. “We reaffirm our request addressed to the maritime agency to be able to immediately re-export these products in order to preserve the security of the port and all those who work there”, one can read in a letter of 2016 obtained by the chain of Qatari information Al-Jazeera.
The port authorities also claim to have offered to offer this cargo to the Lebanese army or to resell it to a company specializing in the manufacture of explosives. Again, without success. “We were told that there was going to be an auction, but it never took place,” said Hassan Koraytem, the general manager of the Port of Beirut, interviewed by 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 whole city," Reuters said in citing an anonymous port source.
In the meantime, all the port officials who “took care of storing ammonium nitrate, ensuring its safety and filling out administrative papers since 2014” have been placed under house arrest for the duration of the investigation, Manal Abdel Samad, the Lebanese Minister of Information, said.
And the Rhosus in all of this? Boris Prokoshev, the ship's captain, learned that it sank in 2015 or 2016 in the port of Beirut. He never really left the scene either. But, unlike ammonium nitrate, it disappeared silently, and without being the source of one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history.
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