2,750 tonnes ammonium nitrate being stored in a warehouse at the port
Beirut: Lebanon’s cabinet Wednesday declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut and handed control of security in the capital city to the military following the massive explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000 others.
Officials said they expect the death toll to rise further as emergency workers dig through the rubble to search for survivors.
The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear. Officials linked the blast to some 2,750 tonnes of confiscated ammonium nitrate that were being stored in a warehouse at the port for six years.
Meanwhile, President Michel Aoun assembled the country’s High Defence Council following the explosion.
President vows ‘harshest punishment
President Aoun called the failure to deal with the ammonium nitrate “unacceptable” and vowed the “harshest punishment” for those responsible.
An investigation has now been launched, and the committee is to refer its findings to the judiciary within five days.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.
US Secretary Mike Pompeo in a call with Prime Minister reiterated ‘steadfast’ commitment to assist the Lebanese people. “Our solidarity with and support for the Lebanese people as they strive for the dignity and security they deserve.”
Tracing the explosives
It was only after the massive explosion ripped through Beirut that most people in Lebanon learned about the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar at the city’s port.
The detonation of the material – used in bombs and fertilisers – sent shockwaves through the Lebanese capital.
Many Lebanese are expressing immense shock at the destruction, and great anger towards those who allowed this to happen.
Media reports show senior Lebanese officials knew for more than six years that the ammonium nitrate was stored in Hangar 12 of Beirut’s port.
And they were well aware of the dangers it posed.
Ammonium nitrate reached Lebanon on Russian cargo
The stores of ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon in September 2013, on board a Russian cargo vessel flying a Moldovan Flag. The Rhosus, according to information from the ship-tracking site, Fleetmon, was heading from Georgia to Mozambique.
The vessel was forced to dock in Beirut after facing technical problems, according to lawyers representing the boat’s crew. But Lebanese officials prevented it from sailing, and eventually, it was abandoned by its owners and crew.
The ship’s dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in Hangar 12 of Beirut port.
Letters sent to authorities, but no response
Months later, on June 27, 2014, then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi sent a letter addressed to an unnamed “Urgent Matters judge”, asking for a solution to the dangerous cargo, according to documents shared online.
Customs officials sent at least five more letters over the next three years – on December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017 – asking for guidance.
They proposed three options: Export the ammonium nitrate, hand it over to the Lebanese Army, or sell it to the privately-owned Lebanese Explosives Company.
One letter sent in 2016 noted there had been “no reply” from the judge to their previous requests.
A year later, Badri Daher, the new Lebanese Customs Administration director, wrote to a judge again.
In the October 27, 2017 letter, Daher urged the judge to come to a decision on the matter in view of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there”.
Nearly three years later, the ammonium nitrate was still in the hangar.
While Tuesday’s explosion seemed to come out of nowhere, many Lebanese were quick to point out what they believe to be the root causes: immense mismanagement by a broken state, run by a corrupt political class who they say treats the country’s inhabitants with contempt.