Interpol red notices issued for ship captain, owner over Beirut blast – Lebanese state media

BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Interpol has issued red notices for the captain and owner of the ship that carried the chemicals which devastated Beirut in an explosion in August, killing 200 people, Lebanon’s state media said.

Five months since one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record, big questions remain about the ammonium nitrate that detonated after being stored at the port for years.

The Interpol notices, which are not international arrest warrants, ask authorities worldwide to provisionally detain people pending possible extradition or other legal actions. Interpol issues them at the request of a member country.

State news agency NNA said on Tuesday that Interpol also issued a notice for a Portuguese trader who examined the cargo at Beirut port in 2014, without giving a name or further details.

The Interpol global police coordination agency says it does not confirm or deny red notices that are not publicly available on its website. An Interpol spokesperson said if there was a notice and it was not published online, that meant it was for law enforcement only.

Lebanese officials have faced accusations of negligence, with some port and customs employees detained in connection to the blast, which injured thousands of people. Families of the victims are still waiting for results of the investigation.

Lebanon’s public prosecution asked Interpol in October to issue arrest warrants for two people it had identified as the Russian captain and owner of the Rhosus ship which arrived in Beirut in 2013, security and judicial sources said.

Their names did not appear on the public list of Red Notices on Interpol’s website on Wednesday.

Boris Prokoshev, the captain at the time, has said the chemicals ended up in Beirut after the ship’s owner told him to divert to pick up extra cargo, and that Lebanese authorities had paid little attention to the nitrate.

“I am shocked,” he told Reuters when asked about the report of an Interpol red notice on Tuesday. “I do not understand at all what could be the basis for my arrest.”

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Maria Vasilyeva in Moscow and Richard Lough in Paris, Editing by William Maclean)

World must not play politics with Lebanon’s pain, Iran says

By Maher Chmaytelli

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The global community should help Lebanon rather than impose its will on the country, Iran’s foreign minister said while in Beirut on Friday, following the catastrophic blast at the city’s port that killed 172 people and pushed the government to resign.

Iran backs Lebanon’s powerful armed movement Hezbollah, which along with its allies helped form the outgoing government. The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Mohammed Javad Zarif was speaking after meeting President Michel Aoun, who had earlier met with U.S. and French officials in a flurry of Western diplomacy that has focused on urging Lebanon to fight corruption and enact long-delayed reforms to unlock foreign financial aid to tackle an economic crisis.

“There should be international efforts to help Lebanon, not to impose anything on it,” Zarif said in televised comments.

He earlier remarked that the Lebanese people and their representatives should decide on the future of Lebanon. “It is not humane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” he said.

Lebanese had been staging angry protests against a political elite blamed for the country’s many woes even before the Aug 4. blast, which injured 6,000, damaged swathes of the Mediterranean city and left 300,000 homeless. Some 30 people remain missing.

The explosion sharply deepened anger at the authorities.

“We can’t live like this. The West has to pressure our leaders to save us,” said Iyaam Ghanem, a Beirut pharmacist.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and French Defense Minister Florence Parly met separately with Aoun on Friday.

Parly in televised remarks later called for the formation of a government capable of taking “courageous decisions”.

CALLS FOR JUSTICE

Hale said on Thursday the United States’ FBI would join a probe into the blast at a hangar in the port where highly-explosive material detonated in a mushroom cloud. Hale called for an end to “dysfunctional governments and empty promises”.

International humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign states have linked any financial assistance to reform of the Lebanese state, which has defaulted on its huge sovereign debts.

Zarif said Tehran and private Iranian companies were ready to help with reconstruction and rehabilitating Lebanon’s electricity sector, which is a chief target of reform.

France’s navy helicopter carrier Tonnerre docked at the port, where authorities say more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years without safety measures.

Aoun told Hale that Beirut needed help to “understand the circumstances” under which the nitrate shipment was brought into the port and unloaded, an official statement said.

Aoun has said the probe would look into whether the cause was negligence, an accident or “external interference”.

Victims and their representatives told reporters that only an independent probe would deliver justice, appealing to the U.N. Security Council for an international investigation and the referral of the blast to an international court.

“Is it acceptable that people find their homes shattered, their families killed, their hopes and their dreams killed, with no justice,” said Paul Najjar, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra died in the blast.

State news agency NNA said questioning of some ministers due on Friday had been postponed as the judge appointed for the task said he did not have authority to question government ministers.

The cabinet resignation has fueled uncertainty. Agreement on a new government will likely be very difficult in a country with deep factional rifts and a sectarian power-sharing system.

Senior Christian cleric Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who wants Beirut kept out of regional conflicts, said a new Lebanon was being “cooked in kitchens” of foreign countries, which he did not name, to serve the interest of politicians.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Michael Georgy and Beirut and Dubai bureaus; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

Exclusive: Lebanon’s leaders were warned in July about explosives at port – documents

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security officials warned the prime minister and president last month that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded, according to documents seen by Reuters and senior security sources.

Just over two weeks later, the industrial chemicals went up in a massive blast that obliterated most of the port and swathes of the capital, killed at least 163 people, injured 6,000 and destroyed 6,000 buildings, according to municipal authorities.

A report by the General Directorate of State Security on events leading up to the explosion included 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 in the report seen by Reuters, a senior security official said it summed up the findings of a judicial investigation launched in January which concluded the chemicals needed to be secured immediately.

The state security report, which confirmed the correspondence to the president and the prime minister, has not previously been reported.

“There was a danger that this material, if stolen, could be used in a terrorist attack,” the official told Reuters.

“At the end of the investigation, Prosecutor General (Ghassan) 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 presidency did not respond to requests for comment about the July 20 letter.

A representative for Diab, whose government resigned on Monday following the blast, said the PM received the letter on July 20 and it was sent to the Supreme Defense Council for advice within 48 hours. “The current cabinet received the file 14 days prior to the explosion and acted on it in a matter of days. Previous administrations had over six years and did nothing.”

The prosecutor general did not respond to requests for comment.

‘DO WHAT IS NECESSARY’

The correspondence could fuel further criticism and public fury that the explosion is just the latest, if not most dramatic, example of the government negligence and corruption that have already pushed Lebanon to economic collapse.

As protests over the blast raged in Lebanon on Monday, Diab’s government resigned, though it will remain as a caretaker administration until a new cabinet is formed.

The rebuilding of Beirut alone is expected to cost up to $15 billion, in a country already effectively bankrupt with total banking system losses exceeding $100 billion.

Aoun confirmed last week that he had been informed about the material. He told reporters he had directed the secretary general of the Supreme Defense Council, an umbrella group of security and military agencies chaired by the president, to “do what is necessary”.

“(The state security service) said it is dangerous. I am not responsible! I don’t know where it was put and I didn’t 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 the necessary,” Aoun said.

Many questions remain over why the shipment of ammonium nitrate docked in Beirut in late 2013. Even more baffling is why such a huge stash of dangerous material, used in bombs and fertilizers, was allowed to remain there for so long.

The letter sent to Lebanon’s president and prime minister followed a string of memos and letters sent to the country’s courts over the previous six years by port, customs and security officials, repeatedly urging judges to order the removal of the ammonium nitrate from its position so close to the city center.

The General Directorate of State Security’s report seen by Reuters said many requests had been submitted, without giving an exact number. It said the port’s manifest department sent several written requests to the customs directorate up until 2016 asking them to call on a judge to order the material be re-exported immediately.

“But until now, no decision has been issued over this matter. After consulting one of our chemical specialists, the expert confirmed that this material is dangerous and is used to produce explosives,” the General Directorate of State Security report said.

HAZARDOUS MATERIAL

The road to last week’s tragedy began seven years ago, when the Rhosus, a Russian-chartered, Moldovan-flagged vessel carrying ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique, docked in Beirut to try to take on extra cargo to cover the fees for passage through the Suez Canal, according to the ship’s captain.

Port authorities impounded the Rhosus in December 2013 by judicial order 2013/1031 due to outstanding debts owed to two companies that filed claims in Beirut courts, the state security report showed.

In May 2014, the ship was deemed un-seaworthy and its cargo was unloaded in October 2014 and warehoused in what was known as Hangar 12. The ship sank near the port’s breakwater on Feb. 18, 2018, the security report showed.

Moldova lists the owner of the ship as Panama-based Briarwood Corp.  Briarwood could not immediately be reached for comment.

In February 2015, Nadim Zwain, a judge from the Summary Affairs Court, which deals with urgent issues, appointed an expert to inspect the cargo, according to the security report.

The report said the expert concluded that the material was hazardous and, through the port authorities, requested it be transferred to the army. Reuters could not independently confirm the expert’s account.

Lebanese army command rejected the request and recommended the chemicals be transferred or sold to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company, the state security report said.

The report did not say why the army had refused to accept the cargo. A security official told Reuters it was because they didn’t need it. The army declined to comment.

The explosives company’s management told Reuters it had not been interested in purchasing confiscated material and the firm had its own suppliers and government import licences.

From then on, customs and security officials wrote to judges roughly every six months asking for the removal of the material, according to the requests seen by Reuters.

Judges and customs officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

A number of customs and port officials have since been detained 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 unguarded, had a hole in its southern wall and one of its doors dislodged, meaning the hazardous material was at risk of being stolen.

In his final report following the investigation, Prosecutor General Oweidat “gave orders immediately” to ensure hangar doors and holes were repaired and security provided, a second high-ranking security official who also requested anonymity said.

On June 4, based on those orders, state security instructed port authorities to provide guards at Hangar 12, appoint a director for the warehouse and secure all the doors and repair the hole in the southern 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 (port authorities) sent a team of Syrian workers (but) there was no one supervising them when they entered to fix the holes,” the security official said.

During the work, sparks from welding took hold and fire started to spread, the official said.

“Given that there were fireworks stored in the same hangar, after an hour a big fire was set off by the fireworks and that spread to the material that exploded when the temperature exceeded 210 degrees,” the high-ranking security official said.

The official blamed port authorities for not supervising the repair crew and for storing fireworks alongside a vast deposit of high explosives.

Reuters could not determine what happened to the workers repairing the hangar.

“Only because the hangar faces the sea, the impact of the explosion was reduced. Otherwise all of Beirut would have been destroyed,” he said. “The issue is all about negligence, irresponsibility, bad storage and bad judgment.”

(Additional reporting by Nadia El Gowely and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Lebanon’s cabinet under pressure as ministers quit and anger grows over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s cabinet faced rising pressure on Monday to step down after a devastating blast that has stirred angry anti-government protests and resignations of several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go and the finance minister set to quit.

The Aug. 4 port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 158 people, injured over 6,000 and wrecked swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, was due to meet on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, ministerial and political sources said.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday.

Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, prepared his resignation letter and brought it with him to a cabinet meeting, a source close to him and local media said.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

Beirut’s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties, complicating efforts to identify the victims.

FED UP WITH CORRUPTION, MISMANAGEMENT

Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit.

Eli Abi Hanna’s house and his car repair shop were destroyed in the blast.

“The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,” he said. “It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.”

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon’s chronic electricity crisis: “Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.”

“It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,” said university student Marilyne Kassis.

An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief.

But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.

Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed.

“It is very sad. We are burying people every day. Forty percent of my church have lost their businesses,” said a priest.

(Additional reporting by Beirut bureau Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Beirut blast a wake-up call on dangers of ammonium nitrate, experts warn

By Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Houreld

(Reuters) – The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say.

Lebanese authorities said 2,750 tonnes of the industrial chemical had been stored for six years at Beirut port without safety measures. That stockpile exploded on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring thousands and leaving about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Commonly used in fertilizers and as an industrial explosive, ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if handled properly, but it has proved lethal.

In one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents, 567 people were killed in Texas in 1947 when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship.

“Beirut, like Texas, is a wake-up call. We should learn from these catastrophes and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Stewart Walker, of the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Some countries have banned ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer because it has been used by militant bomb-makers and since Tuesday’s blast, some governments have been urged to relocate stockpiles.

Chris Owen, a U.N. explosives adviser, said few countries make ammonium nitrate but many use it, often importing it by sea. Since many ports have had cities develop around them, large quantities are moving through cities on a regular basis. “If it’s managed properly, it’s no risk,” Owen said.

In terms of safety, experts say, quantity, ventilation and proximity to flammables are critical, as is distance from population centers.

Anger has been mounting in Lebanon at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of the chemical to be stored near a residential area for years in unsafe conditions.

The United Nations has issued guidelines on safe storage and transportation but regulations vary from country to country, experts said.

Global variation on regulation is a concern, said Julia Meehan, the managing editor of ICIS Fertilizers, a trade publication. “There’s no global body that looks across it, it’s country to country or regional,” said Meehan. “It can even differ from port to port.”

One expert, who asked not to be identified, said political instability was a major factor in enforcement. He cited Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and South American countries. “If the country is at war, or struggling with an insurgency or other problems, they have other issues to deal with,” he said.

Global data on storage is spotty, said Hans Reuvers, a German-based expert on ammonium nitrate and fertilizer technology and executive committee member at the Ammonium Nitrate/Nitric Acid Producers Study Group (ANNA).

Germany only allows 25 tonnes of pure ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, Reuvers said. France toughened its regulations after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse killed 31 people.

“You have to store it in non-flammable bins, keep them far away from flammable materials. There are similar regulations across Europe as well as in East Asia,” Reuvers said.

GLOBAL TRADE

Worldwide trade in ammonium nitrate in 2018 was worth $2.14 billion, with Russia the leading exporter, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, and Brazil the largest importer.

The United States and Europe are the leading consumers of ammonium nitrates, according to London-based IHS Markit, accounting for just over half of global consumption in 2019.

Countries with large stockpiles tend to have large mining or industrial agriculture industries, said Roger Read, of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.

“Those would tend to be most large, industrialized countries – Britain, the U.S., Russia, China – as well as India and other smaller countries in Europe,” Read said.

The United States in 2019 eased chemical-safety regulations implemented after a deadly ammonium nitrate blast in 2013. The move cut costly regulations but still kept safety measures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the EPA should add ammonium nitrate to a list of regulated chemicals needing increased oversight, calling present U.S. regulations “thoroughly inadequate.”

The United States does not maintain a public database on the locations of ammonium nitrate, meaning people do not know if they live near one, said Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how much of this material exists and where,” Craft said. “You don’t know the magnitude of that risk because of the lack of information that’s available.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Tangi Salaun, Jonathan Saul, Gus Trompiz, Polina Devitt, Guy Faulconbridge, Josephine Mason, Stephen Farrell, Tom Polansek and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)