By Jorge Joaquim
The private explosives company Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique (FEM) has confirmed that it was supposed to be the final destination for the shipment of ammonium nitrate that exploded with devastating effect in Beirut last Tuesday.
Interviewed by the United States television network CNN, a spokesperson for FEM said the company was the original buyer for the ammonium nitrate, which was to have been used to make explosives for the Mozambican mining industry.
‘We can confirm that yes, we did order it,’ a spokesperson for FEM told CNN. But it never turned up at its supposed destination, the central Mozambican port of Beira.
FEM imports ammonium nitrate regularly, and this shipment, which was supposed to arrive in Beira in 2013, was the only one which never showed up.
‘This is not common. It’s absolutely not common,’ the FEM spokesperson said. ‘Usually, when you place an order for whatever it is that you’re buying, it’s not common that you don’t get the goods. This is a vessel, it’s not like one thing that was lost in the mail, it’s a big quantity.’
FEM said it never paid for the ammonium nitrate. However, the Lebanese law firm Baroudi and Partners told the “New York Times” that Mozambique’s largest commercial bank, the Millennium-BIM (International Bank of Mozambique) paid for the chemical on behalf of FEM.
But the FEM spokesperson told CNN it had worked with an outside trading company to facilitate the transfer of the chemical from Georgia to Mozambique. But several months after the ammonium nitrate left Georgia, the spokesperson said the trading company told FEM it would not be arriving: ‘We were just informed by that trading company: there’s a problem with the vessel, your order is not going to be delivered,’ the spokesperson said. ‘So, we never paid for it, we never received it.’
FEM then purchased another shipment of ammonium nitrate to make up for the one that never arrived. The spokesperson did not say how much FEM would have paid for the ammonium nitrate from Georgia, other than that it would have been “a significant amount”.
According to AIM, FEM appears to have been caught unwittingly in an international swindle. The ammonium nitrate was on board the Moldovan registered ship, the “Rhosus”, which was leased by a Russian businessman, Igor Grechushkin.
There are some indications that he never intended to send the ship on to Beira. First, the crew had not been paid, and secondly Grechushkin claimed he did not have the money to pay the fees for using the Suez Canal – even though, according to the ship’s captain, Boris Prokoshev, he had received a million dollars to take the ship to Beira.
Allegeldy, Grechushkin sent the “Rhosus” to Beira, to take on more cargo. The idea was that an additional cargo of heavy machinery would earn more money for the ship. But, as Grechushkin should have known, there was no room in the holds of the “Rhosus” for the machinery as well as the ammonium nitrate.
Furthermore, the “Rhosus” was not seaworthy. It was leaking when it arrived in the port of Beirut. Lebanese inspectors found the ship was in no condition to put out to sea again. Furthermore, the “Rhosus” had failed to pay port docking fees. So the Lebanese impounded it.
Attempts to contact Grechuskin were unsuccessful. He simply abandoned the “Rhosus”, with its bills unpaid, included the wages of the crew. Prokoshev and other ship officers found themselves virtual prisoners in Beirut, since the Lebanese would not allow them to leave until the port fees were paid.
Prokoshev recalled that the Russian embassy was unsympathetic and told him “Do you expect President Putin to send special forces to get you out?”
The crew depended on the good will of port officials for food, and eventually, in August 2014, a Lebanese judge ordered the release of the crew on compassionate grounds.
The unseaworthy “Rhosus” eventually sank, but by then the ammonium nitrate had been transferred to a warehouse, where it stayed for six years. Lebanese customs repeatedly urged the judiciary to order the removal of the chemical since it presented a serious threat to human life and to property. Their worst fears were realized on Tuesday, in the enormous explosion which destroyed the port, killed at least 137 people, and injured thousands.
The FEM spokesperson told CNN he was surprised to learn how long the chemical had been stored at the port as ‘that’s not a material that you want to have stored without having any use for it”, adding, ‘this is a very serious material and you need to transport it with very strict standards of transportation.’
‘It’s absolutely massive and devastating to see all of that (the events in Beirut). And it’s with great sorrow that we see that,’ he added. ‘And unfortunately, we see our name attached, even though we have absolutely no part in it.’