BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security officials last month warned the prime minister and president that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut poses a security risk and could destroy the capital if it explodes, according to documents reported by Reuters and senior security sources.
Debris was seen in the port area after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020. REUTERS / Hannah McKay TPX PHOTO OF THE DAY
Just over two weeks later, industrial chemicals exploded in a massive blast that destroyed most of the port, killing at least 163 people, injuring 6,000 others and destroying about 6,000 buildings, according to the city government.
A report by the State Security Administration on the events leading up to the explosion mentioned a separate letter to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab on July 20.
Although the contents of the letter were not included in the report seen by Reuters, a senior security official said it compiled the findings of a judicial investigation launched in January, concluding the Chemicals should be kept confidential immediately.
State security statements, which confirm correspondence with the president and prime minister, have not previously been reported.
“There is a risk that this material, if stolen, could be used in a terrorist attack,” the official told Reuters.
“At the end of the investigation, the Prosecutor General (Ghassan) Oweidat prepared a final report to be sent to the authorities,” he said, referring to the letter issued by the State Security Administration. Supervision sent to the prime minister and president. port security.
“I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded,” said the official who participated in writing the letter and being anonymous.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm his description of the letter.
The prime minister and presidential office did not respond to requests for comment on July 20 letter.
The prosecutor general did not respond to a request for comment.
‘WHAT IS NEEDED’
The letter could intensify public criticism and outrage that the blast is just the latest, if not the most dramatic, example of government negligence and corruption that has pushed Lebanon to the point. economic collapse.
When protests over the explosion broke out in Lebanon on Monday, Diab’s government resigned, though it would remain the governing government until a new cabinet was formed.
The rebuilding of Beirut alone is expected to cost $ 15 billion, in a effectively bankrupt country with the total loss of the banking system in excess of $ 100 billion.
Aoun confirmed last week that he had been informed about the material. He told reporters he instructed the secretary general of the supreme defense council, a sponsored group of Lebanon’s security and military agencies chaired by the president, to “do what is necessary” .
“(State Security Service) said it was very dangerous. I am not responsible! I don’t know where it is located and I don’t know how dangerous it is. I do not have the authority to deal directly with the port. There’s a hierarchy and everyone who knows should know their duty to do the necessary things, ”said Aoun.
Questions remain raised as to why the ammonium nitrate consignment arrived at the port of Beirut at the end of 2013. It is even more difficult to understand why a massive hazardous material warehouse, used in bombs and manure, left there for that long.
The letter was sent to the Lebanese president and prime minister following a series of memos and letters addressed to the country’s courts over the previous six years by port, customs and security officials, repeatedly urging the judges. ordered the removal of ammonium nitrate from its site. To the center of town.
The report by the State Security Administration was reported by Reuters that many requests had been submitted but did not give exact numbers. It said the port’s declaration department sent some written requests to the General Department of Customs until 2016 asking them to call on a judge to request immediate re-export of the materials.
“But so far, no decisions have been made on this matter. After consulting with one of our chemical experts, this expert confirmed that the material was dangerous and used to produce explosives, ”said the General Department of Security. State said.
The road leading to last week’s tragedy began seven years ago, when the Rhosus, a Russian-chartered ammonium nitrate vessel carrying the Moldovan flag from Georgia to Mozambique, docked at the port of Beirut to try to pick up more cargo to increase transit fees. Suez Canal, according to the captain.
The port authorities detained Rhosus in December 2013 under judicial order 2013/1031 due to unpaid debts to the two companies that filed a lawsuit in the Beirut court, state security reports show.
In May 2014, the ship was deemed invalid and its cargo was unloaded in October 2014 and put into storage in a place known as Hangar 12. The ship sank near the breakwater. of the port on February 18, 2018, the security report showed.
Moldova lists the ship’s owner as Panama-based Briarwood Corp. Briarwood could not be immediately reached for comment.
In February 2015, Nadim Zwain, a judge from the General Affairs Court, which deals with urgent matters, appointed an expert to examine the cargo, according to the security report.
The report said the expert concluded that the material was dangerous and through the port authorities, requested to transfer it to the military. Reuters was unable to independently verify expert accounts.
The Lebanese Army Command rejected the request and recommended transferring or selling the chemicals to the privately owned Lebanon Explosives Company, the state security report said.
The report did not say why the military refused to accept the goods. A security official told Reuters it was because they didn’t need it. The military declined to comment.
The explosives company’s management told Reuters they were not interested in purchasing confiscated materials and that the company had its own suppliers and government import permits.
Since then, customs and security officials have written to the judges about every six months requesting removal of the documents, at Reuters requests.
The judges and customs officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.
Several customs and port officials were arrested as part of an investigation into the blast.
‘Bad storage and bad decisions’
In January 2020, a judge opened an official investigation after it was discovered that Hangar 12 was unprotected, there was a hole in the south wall and one of its doors was opened. This means that hazardous materials are in danger of being stolen.
In his final report following the investigation, Prosecutor General Oweidat “ordered immediately” to ensure the hangar doors and holes were repaired and provided with security, a security official said. Second senior security also requested anonymity said.
On June 4, based on those orders, state security instructed the port authorities to provide protection at Hangar 12, appoint warehouse manager and secure all doors and repair loophole on the southern wall, according to state security reports and security officials. .
The port authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The maintenance started and (the port authority) sent a group of Syrian workers (but) nobody watched them when they came in to fix the loopholes,” the security official said.
During the work, the sparks from the soldering and the fire started to spread, the official said.
A senior security official said: “Given that there are fireworks stored in the same hangar, after an hour, a huge fire was set off by the fireworks and spread to the explosive material when the heat degrees exceed 210 degrees.
The official blamed the port authorities for not supervising the crew that repaired and stored fireworks and large amounts of high explosives.
Reuters was unable to determine what happened to the hangar repair workers.
“Just because the hangar faces the sea, the impact of the explosion has diminished. If not, all of Beirut will be destroyed, ”he said. “The problem is all about negligence, irresponsibility, bad hosting and bad reviews.”
Additional reporting by Nadia El Gowely and Ghaida Ghantous; Edited by David Clarke