Lebanon today declared a national state of emergency and put a number of port authority officials under house arrest following the huge blast that shook Beirut yesterday.
With the death toll now exceeding 135 and multiple people injured or missing, it emerges that the explosion was caused by the ignition of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been seized in 2013 from a Moldovian-flagged cargo ship the Rhosus, identified in Russian media reports as operated by by a Cyprus-based Russian business man. The cargo was seized after the ship failed port control inspections and the highly explosive cargo stored in a warehouse.
According to some reports, yesterday’s explosion is thought to been ignited by sparks from welding attempts to belatedly secure the warehouse from intruders.
Investigations continue and, meantime, the BBC reports Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad as saying house arrest will be imposed on all port officials “who have handled the affairs of storing [the] ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork.”
The October 2015 issue of the quarterly Ship Arrest News carried an article from Beirut law firm Baroudi and Associates that gives some insights into how the ammonium nitrate wound up in the warehouse. It says that the Rhosus had left Batumi, Georgia, on September 23, 2013, heading to Biera in Mozambique carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in bulk. En route, technical problems forced the master to enter Beirut Port. On inspection of t by Port State Control, the ship was forbidden to sail. Most crew except the Master and four crew members were repatriated. Shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners and quickly ran out of stores, bunker and provisions.
Acting on behalf of creditors, Baroudi and Associates obtained three arrest warrants for the ship. Efforts to obtain payment failed and subsequently, the firm acted for the master and crew on compassionate grounds, and eventually obtained their release from the ship. Among other reasons cited in making the case, the firm says that, “ emphasis was placed on the imminent danger the crew was facing given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo.”
It says that “owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate onboard the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses.”