A first chronology of the route of ammonium nitrate, suspected of being at the origin of the double explosion in Beirut on Tuesday, allowed several media to trace to a ship, which had left Georgia in 2013 .
The story that led to the tragic double explosion on Tuesday (August 4th) 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 Moldovan-flagged vessel Rhosus left the port of Batumi, Georgia, with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on board. It never reached 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 that killed at least 137 people and injured 5,000, 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 seems 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 yet to release 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 contact 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, said told to the New York Times, Boris Prokoshev, the 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 planned to get paid to carry more cargo, relates Der Spiegel.
The crossing was not easy. The ship appeared to have been in poor condition: a hole in the hull meant that the crew had to regularly empty the seeping water, said Boris Prokoshev, the now retired captain.
Stuck on “a floating bomb”
The stop in the port of Beirut in November 2013 will be final. The Lebanese port authorities affirmed, during the check of the Rhosus, that the papers were not in order and that the boat was not in condition to resume sea, CNN note who contacted the Russian Seamen’s 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 le Fleetmon website, which tracks freight news.
In fact, Lebanon had allowed six crew members to leave the country, keeping only four people – including the captain – in place. 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 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 5th). Eleven months after arriving in Beirut, the sailors finally won the courts the right to return home, said Charbel Dagher, one of the lawyers who represented the crew, to the ShipArrested site in July 2015.
The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate are then transferred to warehouse 12 at the port of Beirut, where they will not budge. 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 applications were made to Lebanese courts for permission to dispose of ammonium nitrate, the New York Times reports. “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 say they have offered to offer the cargo to the Lebanese army or to sell it to a company specializing in the manufacture of explosives. Again, without success. “We were told there was going to be an auction, but it never happened,” said Hassan Koraytem, general manager of the Port of Beirut, to 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 vanished quietly, and without being the source of one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history.