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 sources. security.
Debris seen in the port area after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020. REUTERET / Hannah McKay TPX IMAGES OF DAY
Just over two weeks later, industrial chemicals exploded in a massive explosion that destroyed most of the port, killing at least 163 people, injuring 6,000 others and destroying about 6,000 buildings, according to municipal authorities.
A report by the General Directorate of State Security regarding the events leading up to the blast included a reference to a private letter sent to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab on 20 July.
While the contents of the letter were not in the first report from Reuters, a senior security official said he summed up the findings of a judicial investigation launched in January which completed the chemicals needed to make sure immediately.
The State Security report, which confirmed the correspondence with the president and prime minister, has not been reported before.
“There was a danger that if this material was stolen, it could be used in a terrorist attack,” the official told Reuters.
“At the end of the investigation, Attorney General (Ghazan) Oweidat prepared a final report which was sent to the authorities,” he said, referring to the letter sent to the prime minister and president by the General Directorate of State Security, which oversees port security. .
“I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded,” said the official, who was involved in writing the letter and declined to be named.
Reuters could not independently confirm his description of the letter.
The prime minister’s office and the presidency did not respond to requests for comment regarding the July 20 letter.
The Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment.
‘B DO YOU WANT WHAT IS NECESSARY’
The correspondence could spark further criticism and public outrage that the explosion is just the latest, if not more dramatic, example of government negligence and corruption that has already pushed Lebanon toward economic collapse.
As protests over the blast broke out in Lebanon on Monday, the Diab government resigned, though it will remain as a caretaker administration until a new cabinet is formed.
Rebuilding Beirut alone is expected to cost up to $ 15 billion, in an already effectively bankrupt country with total banking system losses exceeding $ 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 of Lebanese security agencies and the president-led army, to “do what is necessary”.
“(State security service) said it was dangerous. I am 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 directly with the port. “There is a hierarchy and everyone who knew should have known their duties to make it necessary,” Aoun said.
Many questions remain about the fact that the ammonium nitrate shipment was dumped in Beirut at the end of 2013. Even more annoying is why such a large pile of hazardous material, used in bombs and garbage, was allowed to stay there for so long.
The letter to the Lebanese president and prime minister followed a string of memos and letters sent to the country’s courts over the past six years by port, custom and security officials, repeatedly urging judges to order the removal of ammonium nitrate from his position so close to the city center.
The report of the General Directorate of State Security first seen by Reuters says that many requests were submitted, without giving an exact number. He said the port manifestation department sent several written requests to the customs directorate by 2016 asking them to call a judge to order the material to be re-exported immediately.
“But so far, no decision has been made on this issue. After consulting with one of our chemical specialists, the expert confirmed that this material is dangerous and used for the production of explosives,” said the report of the General Directorate of Security. of the State.
The road to last week’s tragedy began seven years ago, when Rhosus, a Russian-flagged Moldovan-flagged ship carrying ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique, jumped into Beirut to try to get an extra cargo to raise tariffs for crossing the Suez Canal, according to the ship’s captain.
Port authorities blocked Rhosus in December 2013 by court order 2013/1031 due to outstanding debts owed to two companies filing claims in Beirut courts, the state security report showed.
In May 2014, the ship was deemed unworthy and its cargo was unloaded in October 2014 and stored in what was known as Hangar 12. The ship sank near the port on February 18, 2018, the safety report showed.
Moldova ranks the owner of the ship as Panama-based Briarwood Corp cannot be reached immediately for comment.
In February 2015, Nadim Zwain, a judge from the Summary Cases Court dealing with urgent matters, appointed an expert to inspect the cargo, according to the security report.
The report states that the expert concluded that the material was dangerous and, through the port authorities, requested that he 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 Lebanese private blast company, according to the state security report.
The report did not say why the military had refused to accept the cargo. A security official told Reuters it was because they did not need it. The military declined to comment.
The management of the explosive company told Reuters that it had no interest in purchasing the seized material and that the firm had its own suppliers and import government licenses.
Since then, customs and security officials have written to judges approximately every six months requesting the removal of the material, according to requests viewed by Reuters.
Judges and customs officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.
A number of customs and port officials have been arrested since the time of the blast investigation.
‘PRESERVATION AND TRIAL OF BAD’
In January 2020, a judge launched a formal investigation after it was discovered that Hangar 12 was careless, had a hole in its south wall, and one of its doors moved, meaning the hazardous material was in danger of being stolen .
In his latest post-investigation report, Attorney General Oweidat “gave the order” immediately to ensure that the doors and hanger holes were repaired and secured, said a second senior security official, who also requested anonymity. .
On June 4, based on those orders, state security instructed port authorities to secure guards at Hangar 12, appoint a warehouse director and secure all doors, and repair the hole in the south wall, according to the state security report. and security officials.
Port authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Maintenance started and (port authorities) sent a team of Syrian workers (but) no one supervised them when they entered to fix the holes,” the security official said.
During work, sparks from the welding were caught and the fire started to spread, the official said.
“Given that there were fireworks stored in the same hangar, an hour later a large fire broke out from the fireworks and which spread to the material that exploded when the temperature exceeded 210 degrees,” the senior security official said.
The official blamed port authorities for not overseeing the repair crew and for storing fireworks alongside a large tank of high explosives.
Reuters could not determine what happened to the workers repairing the hangar.
“Just because the hangar faces the sea, the impact of the explosion was reduced. Otherwise, all of Beirut would have been destroyed,” he said. “Silence is about carelessness, irresponsibility, bad guarding and bad judgment.”
Additional reporting by Nadia El Gowely and Ghaida Ghantous; Edited by David Clarke