Lebanon’s capital Beirut was shaken by a massive explosion originating at the Port of Beirut on 4 August, and the cause is believed to be a cargo of ammonium nitrate seized from a vessel arrested several years ago
Initial Lebanese Red Cross reports that counted 100 deaths from the blast have given way to a report from Lebanon’s health minister Hamad Hassanin to a local Lebanese news channel putting the death toll at 135 with many still missing and more than 4,000 injured.
With images showing the port and vicinity levelled and academic estimates calling the blast one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, maritime security consultants Dryad Global reported significant damage to structures within a 5-10 km radius of the blast and described damage to some of the vessels in the vicinity of the blast. The firm said cruise ship Orient Queen had capsized in the port after suffering damage, killing two crew. Bangladeshi naval vessel BNS Bijoy reported damage and injuries to 21 of its crew. General cargo vessel Sierra Leone-flagged Metro Star reported a breach to its hull and injuries on board, and general cargo vessel Raouf H and three local tugs are believed to have been in close proximity to the explosion.
Lebanese officials have attributed the explosion to improper storage of more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port.
As to how the substance, commonly used as fertiliser in agriculture and as an explosive, may have arrived in the port, the October 2015 issue of The Arrest News published by maritime legal website ShipArrested.com carried a short article which outlined the movements of a cargo of ammonium nitrate on the cargo vessel Rhosus in 2013, which was eventually tranferred to a holding facility in the port of Beirut.
Written by lawyers Charbel Dagher and Christine Maksoud of Lebanese law firm Baroudi & Associates, the article said that on 23 September 2013, Rhosus, carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in bulk, was sailing under the Moldovan flag from Batumi, Georgia to Biera, Mozambique, but was forced to call in Beirut.
"En route, the vessel faced technical problems forcing the Master to enter Beirut Port. Upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing," the article said.
Subsequently, the vessel was abandoned by its owners and Baroudi & Associates acted for creditors who brought claims against the vessel and obtained arrest orders against the vessel. Mr Dagher and Ms Maksoud’s article said stranded crew from the vessel approached the firm which then obtained a judicial order to allow the crew to disembark "given the ’dangerous’ nature of the cargo still stored in ship’s holds". Then, the bulletin states, the ammonium nitrate on board was discharged for storage at the port.
"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. The vessel and cargo remain ... in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal," the 2015 article said.
What sparked the explosion is uncertain. In its incident report, Dryad Global said the 4 August 2020 blast "is initially believed to have occurred when welding works were being undertaken on a door behind which were stored 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate".
"The ammonium nitrate was originally confiscated in 2013 from the Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel Rhosus, which failed Port State Control Inspections," the incident report said.
While officially, the cause and source of the explosion remains undetermined, local officials have said there will be an investigation and others have called for an independent, internationally led investigation to take place.
There are reports of an "initial investigation" that said years of inaction around the removal of the ammonium nitrate is to blame for the blast.
The Lebanese government reportedly said a number of Beirut’s port officials are being placed under house arrest pending further investigation into the explosion. The BBC reported that house arrest would apply for all port officials "who have handled the affairs of storing [the] ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork" since June 2014, citing Lebanon’s Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.
In a televised address, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said those responsible "will pay the price" while promising that details on the explosion and its cause would be made public.
"I promise that this catastrophe will not go unpunished and those responsible will be held accountable," he said.
The blast comes at a difficult time for Lebanon. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, the country is dealing with an economic crisis, frequent power shortages and skyrocketing prices of basic necessities that have sparked protests. And the explosion is reported to have destroyed grain silos estimated to have contained as much as 85% of the country’s grain reserves, raising fears of food shortages.
In response to the port explosion, the Lebanese government has declared a two-week state of emergency and handed over security responsibilities to military authorities. Reportedly, a Lebanese Defence Council statement, read live on television, said President Michel Aoun had decided to release 100 billion Lebanese pounds (US$66m) in emergency allocations from the 2020 budget.
Lebanon reportedly defaulted on external debt in March. In April 2020, Lebanon was reported to have sought US$10Bn in aid from the IMF.
With statements of sympathy and support coming in from governments and leaders around the world, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim released a statement saying IMO was ready and willing to assist Lebanon.
“I express my deepest condolences and sincerest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the government and people of Lebanon following the catastrophic explosions in the port of Beirut yesterday. The port provides a vital artery bringing food, medicines and supplies to the country and its destruction will have devastating consequences. The United Nations is assisting the immediate response to the incident. The International Maritime Organization stands ready to assist in any way we can," the statement said.
Below is a video of the explosion taken from a boat off the coast of Beirut. The blast may be disturbing for some viewers.