One Month on, Question Marks Hang over Lebanon Blast

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One Month on, Question Marks Hang over Lebanon Blast

A month after a deadly port explosion killed over 190 people and destroyed swathes of Lebanon's capital, the government's account of the blast remains pockmarked with questions. Here is a recap:

What happened?

 An initial explosion shook Beirut's port area at around 6:08 pm (1508 GMT) on August 4, resulting in a fire, several small blasts and then a colossal explosion that flattened the docks and surrounding buildings.

Seismologists measured the event, which blew out windows at the city's international airport nine kilometres (more than five miles) away, as the equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake. The blast, heard as far away as Cyprus, left a crater 43 metres (141 feet) deep. 

 Why such a big blast?

Hassan Diab, who quit along with his government in the wake of the blast, said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had blown up.

The fertiliser had been stored in a portside warehouse for seven years, without precautionary measures.

But experts believe that the quantity that ignited was substantially less than declared by authorities.

Even in relatively low quantities, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive when combined with fuel oils and has caused numerous industrial accidents around the world over the years.

Regulations in the United States were tightened significantly after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which used two tonnes of ammonium nitrate and killed 168 people. US facilities that store more than 2,000 pounds (0.9 metric tonnes) of ammonium nitrate are subject to inspections.

Why was it kept at the port?

The ammonium nitrate is widely understood to have arrived in Beirut in 2013 on board the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged ship sailing from Georgia and bound for Mozambique. According to Lebanese law firm Baroudi & Associates, which represents the crew, the vessel had faced "technical problems".

Several security officials told AFP that it was seized by authorities after a Lebanese company filed a lawsuit against its owner. Port authorities unloaded the ammonium nitrate and stored it in a run down port warehouse with cracks in its walls, the officials said. The Rhosus sank in Beirut port several years after it was impounded.

An investigation by the Organised Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that the vessel's owner was Charalambos Manoli, a Cypriot shipping magnate. Manoli denies the claim. The report said a Mozambican factory -- Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique -- had ordered the ammonium nitrate, but did not attempt to retrieve it after the Rhosus was seized.

 Who is to blame?

Lebanese port authorities, customs and security officials knew the chemical was being stored in the port, but despite warnings, action was not taken to remove it, according to an AFP investigation.

Security forces eventually launched an investigation in 2019 after the warehouse started to exude a strange odour, concluding the "dangerous" chemicals needed to be removed from the premises, but again no action was taken.

On July 20 this year, both Diab and President Michel Aoun received a report from the State Security agency warning of the danger of the stored chemicals, according to security and judicial sources. In the week of the blast, workers had begun repairs on the decrepit warehouse.

Security sources have suggested the welding work could have started a fire that triggered the blast, but some observers have rejected this as an attempt to shift the blame for high-level failings.

The OCCRP report alleged that there was a link between the Rhosus and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, a major political player in the country.

It said Manoli was in debt to FBME, a Lebanese-owned bank that went out of business after losing licences in several countries following US Treasury accusations of money laundering and links with Hezbollah.

At one stage, the Rhosus was offered up as collateral to the bank, the report said. - What is the toll? - The explosion killed 191 people.

Seven people remain missing, and more than 6,500 were injured. Up to 300,000 were left homeless.

The cost of the damage amounts to between $2.9 billion and $3.5 billion, according to a World Bank assessment. - How are probes progressing?

Western powers including France and the United States have joined calls by Lebanese citizens at home and abroad for an international investigation.

Lebanese authorities, however, have rejected an international probe, favouring instead a local investigation, albeit supported by the US FBI.

France has launched its own probe. All 25 suspects identified by Lebanese investigators are now in custody, a judicial source told AFP.

They include Beirut port chief Hassan Koraytem and customs chief Badri Daher, as well as three Syrian welders.

Source: AFP