By Jorge Joaquim
Preliminary investigations into the gigantic explosion that ripped through Beirut on Tuesday, killing over 50 people, and injuring thousands more, was caused by an abandoned cargo of ammonium nitrate that had once been headed for Mozambique, according to CNN.
Reports emerging from Beirut suggest that the tragedy began in 2013 when technical problems forced a cargo ship, the MV Rhosus, flying the flag of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, to put into the port of Beirut.
The Rhosus set off from the Black Sea port of Batumi in Georgia, on 23 September 2013, and its destination was listed as the central Mozambican port of Beira.
But it never got further than Beirut. When Lebanese inspectors boarded the ship it found that it was in no fit state to continue its journey. Furthermore, in its hold was a cargo of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, commonly used as fertiliser.
It is also a component of explosives used in the mining and construction industries. In the wrong hands, ammonium nitrate is highly dangerous. It has been used by terrorists, notably in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in the United States, carried out by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, which killed 168 people, and the Oslo bombing of 2011, carried out by Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik. There have also been many accidental ammonium nitrate explosions this century, with a death toll running into hundreds.
The owner of the Rhosus was a Russian businessman, Igor Grechushkin, whose last known address was in Cyprus. Grechushkin made no attempt to make the Rhosus seaworthy, and in early 2014, he simply abandoned it. The ship’s captain, Ukrainian citizen Boris Prokoshev told a Ukrainian legal aid organisation in June 2014 that Grechushkin claimed bankruptcy. “I don’t believe him, but that doesn’t matter”, he said. “The fact is that he abandoned the ship and the crew, just like he abandoned his cargo, ammonium nitrate.”
Eventually a Lebanese judge allowed Prokoshev and other Ukrakinan crew members to go home. The Lebanese law firm representing the seamen said “Emphasis was placed on the imminent danger the crew was facing given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo still stored in ship’s holds”.
A shipping industry journal, “The Arrest News”, which tracks ships that have been impounded, said, in 2015, “Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses”.
For the next six years, the ammonium nitrate was effectively abandoned in the warehouse, despite repeated efforts by Lebanese customs to persuade the country’s judiciary to order its removal. As Tuesday’s events showed, it was a bomb waiting to go off.
It is not yet clear who the southern African customer for the ammonium nitrate was. The final destination may not have been Mozambique at all. Given its use in mining explosives, it might well have been intended for mining operations in Zimbabwe or Zambia. Currently the answer to this is unknown.
Mozambique with no notification on Rhosus
However, Cornelder, the managing company of the port of Beira, told Lusa on Wednesday that it had never been notified of the operation of a ship containing 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate destined for Mozambique.
“Normally, before receiving a ship, we are notified. In this case, we never received any notification from a ship coming to the port of Beira with these characteristics and cargo,” said António Libombo, deputy executive director of Cornelder, concessionaire of the Port of Beira since 1998.
Lusa contacted the Mozambican Ministry of Transport and Communications, which also said it had not been informed about a vessel with these characteristics that year.