More than a month after the explosion at the port, no information has been given on the inves-tigation's progress. Otherwise, the city is rife with a thousand rumors and questions. Was the shipment destined for Beirut? Was the explosion accidental? Who is responsible? One thing is certain: all the lights were red and everyone knew. A review on a criminal negligence.
This article was originally published in French.
It was September 2013. The MV Rhosus leaves the Port of Batumi, Georgia, for what will be its last trip. This is what has become known as a "garbage ship": a ship which, like 10 to 15% of the world fleet, does not comply with international safety regulations and most of the time carries low value-added cargoes.
Built in 1986, the freighter was very well known by the port authorities of the region, stretching between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, its preferred area. Each time it announced it-self, a red flag was insistently displayed on the controllers' screens.
Between 2008 and 2013, no less than 31 controls were carried out on board. The ship had been detained eight times by port authorities in Algeria, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine, and even in Lebanon; in June 2013, in Sidon, the authorities demanded repairs for 17 failures before authorizing the ship to return to sea.
It's not just the ship age that is at issue. Regular changes of flags were another reason for con-cern. The ship had successively flown the flags of Panama, Georgia and then Moldova; the last two flags were on the gray and black lists. "Typically, this is the kind of garbage ship you go to when the only determinant is the cost of transportation," a marine expert said.
A Very Suspicious Owner
Another warning signal: the opacity surrounding its owner. The ship was initially identified as belonging to the Russian Igor Grechushkin, who ran a Cyprus-based company, Teto Shipping.
But an investigation conducted by a consortium of international journalists within the frame-work of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that the Rus-sian was in fact only the ship operator, chartering the ship for one-off jobs.
The owner is the Cypriot businessman, Charalambos Manoli, who hid his identity under a clever setup of front companies, which earned him a place in the Panama Papers scandal among the top names in offshore finance and money laundering.
A former marine inspector, the man had built up a small armada of shipping companies with very dubious practices, some of which helped the Rhosus obtain seaworthiness certificates.
The OCCRP also found that Manoli benefited in 2011 from a loan from the FBME Bank, a Cypri-ot subsidiary of the Federal Bank of Lebanon, owned by Ayoub Farid Saab and Fadi Saab.
In 2014, FBME was accused by the US Treasury of money laundering and financing terrorist or-ganizations, including Hezbollah, and of facilitating the purchase of chemical weapons for the Syrian government.
In any case, the Rhosus transported chemicals: 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a material that can be used to make both fertilizers and explosives, originating from a Georgian factory. Rusta-vi Azot, which produced about 500,000 tons per year of this nitrogen fertilizer, is now one of the main players in the Caucasus market. But it had come a long way: in 2013, riddled with debt, it was forced to sell part of its stock at auction.
It was probably through this means that the Russian trading company, Savaro Limited, acquired the nitrate through its Georgian subsidiary.
The goods were promised to the Mozambican company, Fabrica de Explosivos, which special-ized in civil explosives, sold to mining companies in southern Africa. At least that was the fa-cade. According to the OCCRP, the company was also suspected of illegal arms trafficking and supplying explosives to terrorist organizations.
However, the company was well established and obtained a letter of credit of $700,000 from the International Bank of Mozambique, allowing it to pay for the goods upon receipt. But the goods will never be delivered to it.
After leaving Georgia, the Rhosus first stopped at the Port of Tuzla, near Istanbul, where Cap-tain Boris Prokoshev came on board. It then stopped in Piraeus, Greece, to refuel. This was where the first problems arose. According to the captain, the penniless operator could not pay his suppliers, who blocked him in Piraeus. Nor could he afford to pay for the passage of the Suez Canal. He urgently needed to find cash.
Prokoshev claimed to have received then the order to divert the ship to "take a second cargo," whereas its maximum capacity, of 1,900 tons, was already largely exceeded.
But in Beirut, the Lebanese company Cogic Consultants, representing an international company specializing in seismic imaging, was looking to rent the services of a ship to reach Aqaba, Jor-dan. Its owner, Georges Kamar, was a former ministerial advisor who did not wish to answer our questions.
The company wanted to return equipment it had used during onshore oil and gas exploration missions conducted on behalf of the energy ministry, then led by Gebran Bassil. This equipment belonged to the Jordanian company Geophysical Services Center (GSC), which was also contrac-tual to the ministry.
Accused by the journalist Dima Sadek of having "brought the ship to Beirut," Bassil defended himself, through his lawyer's firm, denying having intervened in the choice of the ship.
Stopover in Beirut
On November 20, the Rhosus stopped at the Port of Beirut to load its second cargo. During the maneuver, the equipment damaged the cargo hold, Boris Moussintchak, the former crew chief, told Reuters. The crew ended the operation, refusing to take any further risks.
The port authorities, for their part, decided to detain the ship, on the one hand because the costs related to its stay in the port had not been paid and on the other hand because it was not seaworthy. In addition to the cargo hold, the controllers required the repair of several technical faults.
In December 2013, two maritime fuel oil suppliers – Bunkernet and Dan Bunkering – requested the seizure of the Rhosus, through the Lebanese law firm Baroudi & Associates, for about $300,000 in unpaid debts. But the firm was unable to get hold of the ship owner and his credi-tors dropped the case.
In the meantime, the firm repeatedly alerted the Lebanese authorities, including the director general of the transport ministry, Abdel Hafez el-Kaissi, to the dangerousness of the cargo on board, citing the example of the 1947 disaster in the US port of Texas City, when the fire of a cargo of ammonium nitrate on the Grandcamp ship caused 581 deaths and about 5,000 inju-ries.
On February 21, 2014, a customs officer, Colonel Joseph Skaff, who died in 2017 in unclear cir-cumstances, also warned his superiors that the cargo of the Rhosus "is extremely dangerous and endangers public safety."
On April 2, 2014, operatives with the Ship Inspection Service, under the directorate general of transport, boarded the ship to verify that the previously noted deficiencies had been addressed. The controllers then noted that not only no repairs had been made, but that the ship's condi-tions had deteriorated. The ship was now in danger of sinking inside the port.
The ministry then submitted a request to the court of summary proceedings for permission to put the ship into dry dock and unload the goods. In this request, the public prosecutor's office merely referred to the presence of "dangerous goods that can cause a chemical reaction and environmental pollution" with the risk that the ship would sink "after having been abandoned by its owners."
On June 27, 2014, a judge of summary proceedings rules, Jad Maalouf, then authorized the ministry to dry-dock the ship – which will never be done – "after having transferred and stored the cargo in a place deemed suitable, under its (the transport ministry's) protection, by taking the necessary measures in view of the dangerousness of the materials on board," according to the decision.
Stored at the Port
The ammonium nitrate was then stored in hangar no. 12 near quay No. 3. The goods receipt form noted its "poor condition": of the 2,750 bags, only 800 were still properly packed. The rest was visibly damaged during the trip or during unloading.
In 2015, the owner of the cargo, the company Savaro, manifested itself and spoke through its lawyer, Joseph el-Qarah, to the court of summary proceedings. "In its request, Savaro Limited explained that it wanted to know the condition of its stock stored at the Beirut Port and whether it was still marketable. In fact, it said it would pay the storage fees at that time," said a judge court for summary proceedings, Nadim Zouein.
An expert, Mireille Moukarzel, was then commissioned and again noted the "terrible condition" of the goods, claiming that she was not to be able to count the bags as they were stacked on top of each other.
She also mentioned that nitrate crystals were escaping from some bags. "But nowhere in this report did she mention the dangerousness of the product or the storage conditions. There was no way to be alerted," the judge said.
In any case, the very poor condition of the goods convinced its owner of the uselessness of an additional recourse. "Savaro would no longer take legal action through me," said the lawyer el-Qarah.
Customs Came to Play a Role
While the judge of summary proceedings had instructed the transport ministry to store the goods under its responsibility, it was finally the directorate general of customs that took charge of it, based on an internal regulation. In such a case, customs usually organized an auction.
But the director general of customs, Badri Daher, was more inclined to re-export it or sell it to a Lebanese explosives company, the Lebanese Explosive Company or Majid Chammas & Co.
The name of this company was allegedly suggested by the army, which had the product ana-lyzed and confirmed that it was nitrate in its pure form – concentrated at 34.7% of nitrogen – that could be used to make explosives, but it said it did not want it.
While he could theoretically have disposed of it, Daher persisted in asking for an authorization of sale from the court of summary proceedings, which has no jurisdiction over this matter. The judge in office at the time informed him of this on several occasions and transferred his request to the relevant department at the justice ministry, which did not follow up.
"This stubbornness in writing to the 'wrong person' is questionable. One wonders if the customs did not seek to cover themselves from a legal point of view," said a lawyer, close to the case. In any event, the customs abandoned all procedures as of 2018.
The port's management, for its part, did not seem to be concerned about the storage conditions of these dangerous products, whereas international recommendations requested, at the very least, the segregation of these materials and compliance with fire standards.
Although Lebanon had no specific regulations concerning ammonium nitrate, the handling and storage of chemicals and hazardous materials were regulated at least by the decree on health and safety at work, which imposes standard measures such as ventilation, passageways, storage building specifications, warning signs, and employee training.
Terrible Storage Conditions
However, not only was hangar no. 12 not properly equipped, but the ammonium nitrate was stored with other products, some of which were highly flammable. This would be revealed by a report by the Directorate General of State Security, prepared in January 2020. The report re-ferred to a "highly flammable nitroglycerine-like liquid material" stored alongside "hazardous materials used in the manufacture of explosives."
The report, which could not be more explicit, warned against the risk of a fire "whose conse-quences would be a major explosion that would almost completely destroy the port." The report also identified another risk: that the goods could be stolen to make explosives, due to a breach on the southern facade of the building and a faulty door.
This was the only point that seemed to have been maintained by the public prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, who simply asked the port authorities to make the necessary repairs to secure the hangar.
The magistrate – who would normally be in charge of prosecutions after the investigation – said nothing about storage conditions, fire standards or the need to move or even destroy the goods. This he would do a few days after the August 4 explosion for hazardous materials stored at the Zouk power plant.
The required work, in any case, was not undertaken. On July 20, State Security sent its report, along with a letter, to the president of the republic, Michel Aoun, and the prime minister, Has-san Diab, alerting once again to the risks of explosion and theft.
The two were not alarmed, however, and transferred the file to the Supreme Defense Council, which in turn sent a letter to the public works minister, Michel Najjar, which reached him on August 3, 2020. He too did not get the measure of danger, simply giving an order to execute Oueidat's decision.
On August 4, workers were therefore sent to carry out the work, without knowing whether they were trained or even alerted to the risk of fire.
When the fire broke out at 5:50 pm, for reasons still unknown, the port authorities, which were fully aware of the risks, did not see fit to evacuate the area, and sent firefighters to the scene.
The firefighters could not even open the hangar door, sealed that very morning, before being pulverized by a first explosion at 6:08 pm, followed by a second blast, of incredible violence, 30 seconds later.
How many tons of nitrate actually exploded? Experts agree that it was not the 2,750 tons, "but only a few hundred," said a chemist.
This hypothesis may suggest that the stock was exploited by certain parties – such as Hezbollah or possibly Islamist movements – but may also be explained by the age of the stock."It is likely that some of it has decomposed with time and heat," said another chemist.
Or by the way the explosion materialized. "The heat created by the first fire ignited the upper part of the ammonium nitrate. With such an amount, it is impossible for it to burn completely. The retained gases rose the heat as well as the pressure... until the ammonium exploded," said a military specialist.
A question, among many others, to be answered by Judge Fadi Sawan's inquiry. To date, he has issued 25 arrest warrants. Among the most senior officials detained are Daher, the CEO of the board of directors of the port Hassan Koraytem and el-Kaissi.
At this point, the judge did not seem to want to move up the chain of responsibility. The risk is that "the responsibility is limited to those who ordered and carried out the work, who would then be charged with involuntary manslaughter, punishable by only three years in prison," a jurist said.
At the highest levels of the state, those who were fully aware of the risks and failed in their re-sponsibility may then sleep soundly.