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Corruption or Hezbollah: What “killed” Beirut

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Lebanon is threatened with famine over a destroyed port in the capital. It is believed that the dangerous cargo was being sent to a paramilitary Lebanese group.

The explosions at the port of Beirut, which were estimated at one-tenth of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, were caused by ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in the port of the Lebanese capital for many years.

How the chemicals ended up in Beirut and why it exploded

The damage from the explosion in the Lebanese capital could reach $ 15 billion. This was stated by the Governor of Beirut Province, Marwan Abboud. As a result of the explosion, half of the city was damaged: some buildings were completely destroyed, somewhere glass was broken. 

Tens of thousands of people in the city were left not only homeless but also without work. The port, through which Lebanon imports almost everything it needs, was completely destroyed, as well as an elevator with a strategic grain reserve. The country is under the threat of hunger.

The explosion was caused by improper storage of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as fertilizer or as a component for explosives. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the 2,750-ton shipment had been in storage since 2014 without taking the necessary precautions.

The Rhosus vessel, which was carrying nitrate, was reportedly owned by Igor Grechushkin, an entrepreneur from the Russian city of Khabarovsk. The crew consisted of citizens of Ukraine and Russia, and their employer was the Cypriot company Teto Shipping.

The vessel was sailing from Georgia to Mozambique, but an unscheduled call to Beirut due to a breakdown in October 2013 turned into an arrest by the port authorities due to technical violations of operation. The crew of four were forbidden to leave the ship.

Permission to unload chemicals onshore was issued a year later – to the same warehouse number 12, which on Tuesday first caught fire and then became the epicentre of a powerful explosion.

The warehouse was not particularly protected and equipped with air conditioning, as provided by the safety standards for the storage of ammonium nitrate in other countries.

According to an undated memo, allegedly from the port administration, applications were made in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 to remove highly hazardous cargo from the port, “or send it back to the sender, or sell it to a Lebanese explosives company.”

After the ship Rhosus was detained in the port of Beirut, “the owner of the ship disappeared with his money, and the alleged buyers in Mozambique showed no movement,” the then captain of the ship Boris Prokoshev told Radio Liberty.

German tabloid Bild believes that this may indicate that the supply of goods to Africa was only a pretext for delivering explosives to the reach of Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary group supported by Iran.

An insider told Bild that the refusal to authorize the shipment or sale of the shipment may have been an act of civil disobedience to prevent the shipment from entering Hezbollah.

The publication writes that it conducted its own investigation, which showed that between 2012 and 2016, terrorists tried in other ways to gain access to highly explosive ammonium nitrate in order to strike at Jewish and Israeli targets around the world.

Hezbollah knew that it was possible to gain access to 2,750 tons of the substance at any time and therefore refrained from further attempts to take possession of it,” the authors say.

Bild notes that a few weeks ago, Israelis killed a Hezbollah member in a targeted airstrike in the Syrian capital Damascus and the group vowed revenge, “and Israel was preparing for an emergency on its northern border.”

In favour of the fact that the Shiites have shown interest in the explosive is evidenced by the fact that the fire in the warehouse began during welding work on the building gates: they tried to protect ammonium nitrate from theft, the tabloid notes.

The captain of the ship blames the Lebanese authorities for the fact that the dangerous cargo was actually thrown in the port.

“There was no need to arrest this ship, it was necessary to get rid of it as soon as possible! When they asked to release it, they had to say: go already, nothing is needed from you! And they began to demand that the debt be returned to them for the port dues – and that’s what happened”, he said.

Note that there is a lot of negative information about Igor Grechushkin and his company Teto Shipping Ltd on the forums devoted to sea merchant shipping: he is accused of non-payment of salaries, disregard for his crews and ships, non-compliance with safety rules and even fraud.

According to Captain Prokoshev, the sailors who found themselves on the ship detained at the port of Beirut did not receive salaries. It turned out that back in 2014, he sent a complaint to the seamen’s trade union in Novorossiysk, where he reported that the crew that had not been released from the arrested ship received neither salary nor food.

“The shipowner intends, according to him, to sell the ship and pay off the crew, but he cannot sell it, since the ship carries a dangerous cargo of ammonium nitrate, which is not allowed in the port of Beirut to be unloaded and reloaded onto another ship,” the document said quoted by Russian media.

Prokoshev also wrote in 2014 to the International Association of Transport Workers that the shipowner was offered to abandon Rhosus in exchange for paying off debts to seamen and the port in Beirut. 

“He baulked and refused to sign the proposed solution to the situation,” the letter said.

In both documents, Prokoshev also complained about the lack of assistance from Russian diplomats in Lebanon.

“I wrote to Putin every month. I wrote that our condition is worse than that of the prisoners. The prisoner knows when he will be released, but we do not know when they will release us! And whether they will release us at all!, he said.

The ship eventually sank a couple of years ago due to a hole. “It was necessary to periodically pump out water. And if there is no crew, there is no one to do it,” said Prokoshev.

Joe Gilbertson, head of the fertilizer sector of the British Confederation of Agricultural Industries, believes that the information about the hole on the ship could mean that seawater may have entered the saltpetre.

Pollution from seawater makes saltpeter a potentially explosive substance, the expert told BBC News.

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