BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security officials warned the prime minister and president last month that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded, according to documents seen by Reuters and senior security sources.
Rubbish is seen in the port area after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020. REUTERS / Hannah McKay TPX PICTURES OF THE DAY
Just over two weeks later, the industrial chemicals exploded in a massive blast that wiped out most of the port, killing at least 163 people, injuring 6,000 more and destroying about 6,000 buildings, according to municipal authorities.
A report by the Directorate-General for State Security on the events leading up to the explosion contained a reference to a private letter sent to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab on July 20.
While the content of the letter was not included in the report that Reuters saw, a senior security official said it summarized the results of a forensic investigation launched in January, concluding that the chemicals must be secured immediately.
The state security report, which confirmed the correspondence with the president and prime minister, has not been reported before.
“There was 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 Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ghassan) Oweidat prepared a final report which was sent to the authorities,” he said, referring to the letter sent to the Prime Minister and the President of the Directorate-General for State Security, which oversees port security.
“I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded,” said the official, who co-wrote and wrote the letter and refused to be named.
Reuters could not independently confirm its description of the letter.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the Presidency did not respond to requests for comment on the July 20 letter.
The prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“DO WHAT IS NECESSARY”
The correspondence could drive further criticism and public outrage that the explosion is just the latest, if not the most dramatic example of the government’s negligence and corruption that has already driven Lebanon to economic collapse.
When the protests over the explosion that raged in Lebanon on Monday, the Diab government resigned, although it will remain as a caretaker administration until a new cabinet is formed.
The reconstruction of Beirut alone is expected to cost up to $ 15 billion, in a country that has already gone bankrupt with total bank losses in excess of $ 100 billion.
Aoun confirmed last week that he had been informed of the material. He told reporters that he had directed the Secretary-General of the Supreme Defense Council, an umbrella group in Lebanon’s security and military bureaus, as chairman of the president, to “do what is necessary.”
“(The State Security Service) said it was dangerous. I’m not responsible! I do not know where it was placed and I did not know how dangerous it was. I have no authority to deal with the port directly. There is a hierarchy and all those who knew should have known their duties to do what is necessary, “said Aoun.
Many questions remain as to why the transfer of ammonium nitrate was arranged in Beirut at the end of 2013. Even more puzzling is why so much hazardous material, used in bombs and fertilizers, was allowed to remain so long.
The letter sent to Lebanon’s president and prime minister followed a series of messages and letters sent to the country’s courts over the past six years by ports, customs and security representatives, repeatedly urging judges to order the removal of ammonium nitrate from its position so close to the city center.
The Directorate-General for State Security reported by Reuters said that many requests had been submitted, without giving an exact number. It said the port’s manifesto department sent several written inquiries to the customs directorate until 2016, asking them to urge a judge to order the material to be exported immediately.
“But so far no decision has been made on this issue. After consulting one of our chemical specialists, the expert confirmed that this material is dangerous and is used to produce explosive substances, says the Directorate-General for State Security.
The road to last week’s tragedy began seven years ago, when Rhosus, a Russian chartered, Moldovan-flagged ship transporting ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique, arrived in Beirut to try to pick up extra cargo to raise tolls through the Suez Canal. according to the ship’s captain.
The port authorities issued Rhosus in December 2013 by legal decision 2013/1031 due to outstanding debts to two companies that filed claims in the courts in Beirut, the state security report showed.
In May 2014, the ship was considered invaluable and its cargo was unloaded in October 2014 and stored in the so-called Hangar 12. The ship sank near the port’s breakwater on 18 February 2018, the safety report showed.
Moldova lists the ship’s owner as the Panama – based Briarwood Corp. Briarwood could not be immediately reached for comment.
In February 2015, Nadim Zwain, a judge from the Summary Court, who deals with urgent matters, appointed an expert to inspect the cargo, according to the safety report.
The report said that the expert concluded that the material was dangerous and requested through the port authorities that it be transferred to the army. Reuters could not independently confirm the expert’s account.
The Lebanese Army Command rejected the request and recommended that the chemicals be transferred or sold to the private Lebanese Explosives Company, the state security report said.
The report did not say why the army refused to accept the cargo. A security spokesman told Reuters it was because they did not need it. The army declined to comment.
The explosive company’s management told Reuters that it had not been interested in buying confiscated material and that the company had its own suppliers and government import licenses.
From then on, customs and safety representatives wrote to the judges about every six months and asked that the material be removed, according to Reuters’ inquiries.
Judges and customs officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.
A number of customs and port officials have since been arrested as part of the investigation into the blast.
“BAD STORAGE AND BAD JUDGMENT”
In January 2020, a judge launched an official investigation after it was discovered that Hangar 12 was unattended, had a hole in the south wall and one of its doors came loose, which means that the dangerous material was at risk of being stolen.
In his final report after the investigation, “Advocate General Oweidat” immediately ordered “to ensure that hangar doors and holes were repaired and security provided, said another senior security official who also requested anonymity.
On June 4, on the basis of these orders, state security instructed the port authorities to provide guards at Hangar 12, appoint a commander of the warehouse and secure all doors and repair the hole in the south wall, according to the state security report and security officials.
The port authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“The maintenance started and (the port authorities) sent a team of Syrian workers (but) there was no one to monitor them when they went in to fix the holes,” says the security authority.
During the work, sparks from the welding took hold and fire began to spread, the official said.
“Given that there were fireworks stored in the same hangar, after an hour a large fire was set off by the fireworks and which spread to the material which exploded when the temperature exceeded 210 degrees,” said the high-ranking security officer.
The official blamed the port authorities for not monitoring the repair crew and for storing fireworks alongside a large deposit of high explosives.
Reuters could not determine what happened to the workers who repaired the hangar.
“Just because the hangar faces the sea, the impact of the explosion diminished. Otherwise, the whole of Beirut would have been destroyed, he said. “The issue is about negligence, irresponsibility, poor storage and poor judgment.”
Additional reporting by Nadia El Gowely and Ghaida Ghantous; Edited by David Clarke