FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment

(Reuters) – The amount of ammonium nitrate that blew up at Beirut port last year was one fifth of the shipment unloaded there in 2013, the FBI concluded after the blast, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.

As the first anniversary approaches on Aug. 4, major questions remain unanswered, including how a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate – which can be used to make fertilizer or bombs – was left unsafely stored in a capital city for years.

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, killing more than 200 people, wounding thousands, and devastating swathes of Beirut.

The FBI’s Oct. 7, 2020 report, which was seen by Reuters this week, estimates around 552 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded that day, much less than the 2,754 tonnes that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013.

The FBI report does not give any explanation as to how the discrepancy arose, or where the rest of the shipment may have gone.

In response to a detailed request for comment, an FBI spokesperson referred Reuters to the Lebanese authorities.

FBI investigators came to Beirut after the blast at Lebanon’s request.

A senior Lebanese official who was aware of the FBI report and its findings said the Lebanese authorities agreed with the Bureau on the quantity that exploded.

Many officials in Lebanon have previously said in private they believe a lot of the shipment was stolen.

The ammonium nitrate was going from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut and take on extra cargo.

The ship arrived in Beirut in November 2013 but never left, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees and ship defects. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

The senior Lebanese official said there were no firm conclusions as to why the quantity that exploded was less than the original shipment. One theory was that part of it was stolen. A second theory was that only part of the shipment detonated, with the rest blown out to sea, the official said.

The FBI report said “an approximate amount reaching around 552 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in warehouse 12.”

It noted the warehouse was large enough to house the 2,754 tonne shipment, which was stored in one-tonne bags, but added “it is not logical that all of them were present at the time of the explosion.”

(Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. returns stolen 525-year-old Columbus letter to Vatican

A copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus, that had been stolen from Vatican archives and returned by United States to the Vatican Library, is seen displayed at the Vatican June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/Pool

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A 525-year-old copy of a letter by Christopher Columbus that was stolen from the Vatican was returned on Thursday after joint sleuthing by U.S. Homeland Security agents and Holy See antiquity experts.

“We are returning it to its rightful owner,” said U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Callista Gingrich, at a handover ceremony in a frescoed room of the Vatican Library, which houses tens of thousands of rare, historic items.

While still at sea returning to Europe in February, 1493 – four months after discovering the New World – Columbus penned a letter to Spain’s monarchs describing what he had found and laying the groundwork for his request to fund another voyage.

His original letter was written in Spanish. A Latin translation was manually printed in several copies and they became the main vehicle for spreading news of his find to the royal courts of Europe and the papacy.

One of the Latin letters, printed in Rome by Stephan Plannack in 1493, found its way into the Vatican Library. Known as the Columbus Letter, it is made up of eight pages, each about 18.5 cm by 12 cm.

But in 2011, an American expert in rare manuscripts received a Columbus letter for authentication and deemed it to be original.

The year before, the same expert had studied a Columbus Letter in the Vatican Library and suspected that it was a fake because, among other factors, its stitching marks did not match up with those on the binding.

The letter in the United States, however, matched up perfectly to the binding marks of the leather cover of the letter he had studied in the Vatican.

The expert, who was not identified, notified Homeland Security art investigators, who began working quietly with Vatican inspectors and rare books experts.

They concluded that at some time after the authentic eight-page letter became part of the Vatican Library, someone took it out of its binding and replaced it with a forgery so good that no-one noticed.

“We do not know exactly when the substitution took place. We will probably never know who the forger was,” said Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues, the Vatican’s chief archivist and librarian.

Homeland Security agents, who were present at Thursday’s handover, and their Vatican counterparts, coordinated the examination of the letters by other experts, including some at Princeton University.

Their investigations determined that the authentic Columbus letter had been sold to a New York book dealer by Marino Massimo De Caro, who Homeland Security defined as a “notorious Italian book thief”.

He is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Italy for the theft of some 4,000 ancient books and manuscripts from Italian libraries and private collections.

The authentic letter was purchased in 2004 by the late American collector David Parsons for $875,000. After the investigations, his widow agreed to voluntarily return the letter to the Vatican Library.

The letter is now worth about $1.2 million, officials at the handover ceremony said.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella. Editing by Patrick Johnston)