How judges responded to warnings about ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port

CNN  — 

Newly released documents suggest multiple government agencies in Lebanon were informed about ammonium nitrate being housed at a warehouse in Beirut port, including the Ministry of Justice.

The information adds to a growing body of evidence, including emails and public court documents, that officials had been notified about a shipment of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate – described by one Russian analyst as a “floating bomb” – that is linked to Tuesday’s catastrophic explosion in the seaside capital.

After the explosion, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said it was “unacceptable” that a shipment of an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse for six years. However, documents obtained by CNN show that members of the Lebanese government and judiciary were apprised of vast quantities of the dangerous material being stored there – and may have failed to safeguard it.

In 2013, a Russian-owned vessel, MV Rhosus, was detained in Beirut with a cargo of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, which is used in industrial agriculture and mining. The cargo was said to be destined for Mozambique, but the ship stopped in Beirut due to financial difficulties.

Baroudi & Associates, who represented the Russian vessel’s crew, published a statement on Wednesday saying they sent letters in July 2014 to officials at Beirut Port and the Ministry of Transportation “warning of the dangers of the materials carried on the ship.”

They state that they also received a letter that month “from the General Director of Land and Sea Transportation informing us that he sent official letters to the Justice Ministry asking them to do what’s necessary for the ship to avoid its sinking and expose the port to the danger of its load.”

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“He also told us that he sent a letter to the naval authorities to do what’s needed to repair the ship and avoid its sinking,” the statement wrote.

CNN has reached out to Lebanese Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Transportation and Beirut Port for comment but has received no response.

Despite warnings, the cargo remained at the port.

Lebanese judicial authorities on Friday ordered the detention of the director general of Lebanese Customs, according to state-run media outlet NNA, after hours of investigation into the blast, which killed more than 150 people and injured thousands.

Authorities also ordered the detentions of the head of Beirut’s port and the former head of customs, and the investigation is ongoing, NNA reported. No additional details were provided on why they were detained.

Repeated warnings

Customs authorities issued repeated notices to a judge about the dangerous cargo, according to documents seen by CNN. But the judge, who cannot be named for legal reasons, responded multiple times saying that the ship and its cargo might not be within the court’s jurisdiction, the documents show.

In four handwritten responses written in 2016 and 2017, the judge and their successor responded to letters from Lebanese customs officials saying that they needed “to discuss to what extent the jurisdiction of the court” covered this matter.

Baroudi & Associates have also said that the intended destination of the potentially explosive cargo was Mozambique and that it was being shipped “per the order of International Bank of Mozambique for Fabrica De Explosives” when it was detained in Beirut.

A spokesperson for Fábrica de Explosivos Moçambique (FEM) – a Mozambican explosives manufacturing company – told CNN it had originally ordered the ammonium nitrate. It was intended for manufacturing explosives for mining companies in Mozambique, the spokesperson said.

FEM told CNN this was the only shipment of the chemical ordered by the Mozambican firm that never arrived, calling it “absolutely not common.” CNN agreed not to publish the spokesperson’s name due to the employee’s privacy concerns amid a sensitive international story.

FEM worked with an outside trading company to transfer the chemical compound to Mozambique from Georgia, where it was produced. But several months after the shipment left Georgia, the spokesperson said the trading company told FEM it would not be arriving.

The spokesperson said that colleagues at the company were very “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.”

The International Bank of Mozambique did not respond to a request for comment.

But the director of Beira Port in Mozambique, António Libombo, has denied knowledge of the Russian vessel, according to local Portuguese news outlet Lusa. “Usually, before we receive a ship, we are notified. In this case, we never receive any notification of a ship coming to Beira port with those characteristics and cargo,” Libombo reportedly told Lusa.

The Mozambican Ministry of Transport and Communications also reportedly told Lusa that they were not informed about the Russian vessel.

The possibility that the blast could have been prevented has already ignited accusations of government negligence, rooted in long-held frustration at Lebanon’s political class.

The blast came as Lebanon was already seeing rising unemployment, soaring prices and a currency in free fall. For many, the tragedy is further proof of government ineptitude and corruption.

CNN’s Tara John, Tamara Qiblawi and Helen Regan contributed to this report.