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A Troubled Ship And Gov’t Negligence Blamed To Have Caused The Monster Explosion in Beirut

The tragic explosion could have been prevented years ago.

Mark Andrew

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  • More information is starting to surface, following the destructive explosion that rocked Beirut, Lebanon.
  • As the reports tell us, the ammonium nitrate stored in the Beirut warehouse was seized years ago from a Russian-owned ship called Rhosus.
  • Officials repeatedly ignored the request to transfer the dangerous chemicals which later led to the tragic incident.

In November 2013, a cargo ship called The Rhosus docked at the port of Beirut in Lebanon. The said vessel departed from Batumi, Georgia about two months ago and was originally bound to Mozambique. It never reached its destination.

Apparently, Rhosus was laden with a lot of issues that eventually led to it being stuck in the Middle-Eastern country. According to a New York Times feature, “The story of the ship and its deadly cargo, which emerged on Wednesday in accounts from Lebanon, Russia and Ukraine, offered a bleak tale about how legal battles, financial wrangling and, apparently, chronic negligence, set the stage for a horrific accident that devastated one of the Middle East’s most fondly regarded cities.”

The controversial ship with a deadly cargo.

The Rhosus arrived in Beirut in November 2013, two months after it left the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Georgia. The ship was leased by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman living in Cyprus, to transport a dangerous cargo: 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used to make fertilizers and explosives.

Boris Prokoshev, the captain, boarded the ship in Turkey after a mutiny over unpaid wages by a previous crew. Mr. Grechushkin had been paid $1 million to transport the dangerous cargo to the port of Beira in Mozambique, according to the captain.

The ammonium nitrate was purchased by the International Bank of Mozambique for Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a firm that makes commercial explosives, according to Baroudi and Partners, a Lebanese law firm representing the ship’s crew.

Mr. Grechushkin, who was in Cyprus at the time and communicating by telephone, told the captain he didn’t have enough money to pay for passage through the Suez Canal. So he sent the ship to Beirut to earn some cash by taking on an additional cargo of heavy machinery.

But in Beirut, the machinery would not fit into the ship, which was about 30 or 40 years old, the captain said.

The Lebanese officials also found the ship unseaworthy and impounded the vessel for failing to pay the port docking fees and other charges. When the ship’s suppliers tried to contact Mr. Grechushkin for payment for fuel, food and other essentials, he could not be reached, having apparently abandoned the ship he had leased.

Six crew members returned home, but Lebanese officials forced the captain and three Ukrainian crew members as “hostages” until the debt issue was solved. Lebanese immigration restrictions prevented the crew from leaving the ship, and they struggled to obtain food and other supplies, according to their lawyers.

Mr. Prokoshev, the captain, said Lebanese port officials took pity on the hungry crew and provided food. But, he added, they didn’t show any concern about the ship’s highly dangerous cargo. “They just wanted the money we owed,” he said.

Their pitiful situation attracted attention back in Ukraine, where news accounts described the stranded crew as “hostages,” trapped aboard an abandoned ship.

The captain, a Russian citizen, appealed to the Russian Embassy in Lebanon for help, but got only snippy comments like, “Do you expect President Putin to send special forces to get you out,” he recalled.

Increasingly desperate, Mr. Prokoshev sold some of the ship’s fuel and used the proceeds to hire a legal team, and these lawyers also warned the Lebanese authorities that the ship was in danger “of sinking or blowing up at any moment.”

A Lebanese judge ordered the release of the crew on compassionate grounds in August 2014, and Mr. Grechushkin paid for their passage back to Ukraine. Their departure left the Lebanese authorities in charge of the ship’s deadly cargo, which was moved to a storage facility known as Hangar 12, where it was apparently forgotten for years until the explosion on Tuesday.

For many Lebanese, the story is another sign of the chronic mismanagement of a ruling class that steered the country into a punishing economic crisis this year.

Mr. Prokshev, who said he is still owed $60,000 in wages, placed the fault with Mr. Grechushkin, and with Lebanese officials, who insisted on first impounding the boat, and then on keeping the ammonium nitrate in the port “instead of spreading it on their fields.”

“They could have had very good crops instead of a huge explosion,” the ex-captain said.

As for the Rhosus, Mr. Prokoshev learned from friends who sailed to Beirut that it had sunk in the harbor in 2015 or 2016, after taking water on board.

The tragedy could have been prevented.

Looking back now, things didn’t have to take a tragic turn since several custom officials have written six letters to the government from 2014 to 2017, warning them about the dangerous chemicals.

In May 2016, for example, customs director Shafik Marei wrote:

“In view of the serious danger posed by keeping this shipment in the warehouses in an inappropriate climate, we repeat our request to demand the maritime agency to re-export the materials immediately.”

The customs officials proposed a number of solutions, including donating the ammonium nitrate to the Lebanese Army, or selling it to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company. Mr. Marei sent a second, similar letter a year later. Unfortunately, all their pleas were ignored by the judiciary.

Hassan Koraytem, manager of the port in Beirut, confirmed that “nothing happened” after years of sending requests to the courts.

He said:

“We were told the cargo would be sold in an auction. But the auction never happened and the judiciary never acted.”

Watch this video to learn more about Rhosus and its connection to the tragic Beirut explosion:

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