With more than 3,000 Beirut families now homeless, and more than 150 have officially been declared death as the search for remains over the massive blast site continues, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Friday that an official government probe would look into the “possibility of external interference”, including the possibility that the explosion was triggered by a rocket or a bomb.
“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office, per Reuters.
Meanwhile, thousands of Beirutis took to the streets last night to protest the government’s apparent incompetence. Some hurled stones at police while others mourned the descent into anarchy.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.
His family home is in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred metres from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area.
A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.
Lebanon has promised a full investiation, and 16 people have already been arrested. But many fear that those taken into custody are merely scapegoats for government incompetence.
The government has promised a full investigation. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody.
But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect by the authorities while corruption thrived.
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometres) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion – a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Theories that the explosion was precipitated by a missile or a bomb have been summarily dismissed, due to both a purported preponderance of evidence to the contrary (video of the scene clearly shows a fire and several explosions in the warehouse precipitating the explosion), and the readiness of international terror groups and foreign governments to deny responsibility for the attack. But there’s still so much left unknown, and Lebanon’s apparent disinterest in pursuing the Russian businessman whose seized cache of ammonium nitrate caused the explosion has led to more questions.
To be sure, negligence, or a tragic accident, would also be examined as probable causes. Reuters reported, citing anonymous sources close to the Lebanese government, that an initial probe has blamed negligence pertaining to the storage of the explosive material.
But the US has previously said it has not ruled out an attack. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.
As we explained earlier this week, a 2,500-ton cache of ultravolatile ammonium nitrate had been stored in a waterfront warehouse by the Lebanese government after it was seized from a foreign ship back in 2013. For years, several port authorities (some of whom are now under house arrest as the government starts its investigation/hunt for a scapegoat) reportedly warned the government about the dangers associated with the chemical cash, and urged them to find a way to dispose of it – even if it meant handing it out to Lebanese farmers to spread over their crops.
And the almost unbelievable story of how the explosive substance got there has emerged. It’s centered on a derelict and leaking vessel leased by a Russian businessman living in Cyprus. In 2013 the man identified as Igor Grechushkin, was paid $1 million to transport the high-density ammonium nitrate to the port of Beira in Mozambique. That’s when the ship, named the Rhosus, left the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Georgia.
But amid mutiny by an unpaid crew, a hole in the ship’s hull, and constant legal troubles, the ship never made it. Instead, it entered the port of Beirut where it was impounded by Lebanese authorities over severe safety issues, during which time the ammonium nitrate was transferred off, and the largely Ukrainian crew was prevented from disembarking, leading to a brief international crisis among countries as Kiev sought the safe return of its nationals.
Meanwhile, Igor Grechushkin – believed to still be living in Cyprus – reportedly simply abandoned the dangerously subpar vessel he leased, as well as its crew, never to be heard from again.
The ammonium nitrate was supposed to be auctioned off, but this never happened. Apparently exasperated customs and dock officials even suggested Lebanese farmers could simply spread it across their fields for a good crop yield. But not even this simple solution was heeded, nor proposals to give it to the Lebanese Army.
Meanwhile, the fate of the man originally at the center of the saga, whose decision to simply abandon the leaky ammonium nitrate laden ship in the first place, remains somewhat of a mystery and is now largely being overlooked in international media reports. Strangely, it doesn’t even appear that Lebanese law enforcement is eager to talk to him just yet.
Cypriot media is saying Igor Grechushkin is not a Cypriot passport holder but is indeed residing in the EU country. Local authorities have indicated they are ready to bring him in for questioning, but they haven’t received a request from either Lebanese authorities or Interpol. Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou announced Thursday: “We have already contacted Interpol Beirut and expressed our readiness to provide them with any assistance they need, if and when our assistance is requested.”
An initial government “probe” blamed negligence related to storage of the explosive material. And with more Beirutis taking to the streets to demand an answer, we’re curious to see how the government handles the process as it seeks to preserve what little credibility it has left.