Blast in Lebanon’s Port Capped Deadly Game of Pass the Buck

120 Dana Khraiche

  • Authorities were warned about the chemical 4 times this year
  • Last warning came just hours before the port was flattened

Rescue workers dig through rubble in the Port of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 7.

Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg

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The nearly 3,000 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate that caused last week’s disastrous explosion in Lebanon didn’t languish forgotten in the years after an alarm was first raised. A warning was sent to the Public Works Ministry the very day the Port of Beirut blew up, and at least three other times this year, shunted from office to office in a deadly game of pass the buck, documents suggest.

As reported earlier, customs officials first warned about the chemical in 2016, three years after the ship carrying it had been impounded by Lebanese authorities for not settling port fees, and its volatile cargo was put into storage. But the warnings that could have headed off the mysterious Aug. 4 explosion that killed 156 people, wounded thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands didn’t stop there.

Documents provided by the office of Prime Minister Hassan Diab show that interest in the cargo intensified this year for reasons that are unclear.

On Jan. 27, State Security asked to investigate the storage of the ammonium nitrate at the port, and five months later, instructed the government commissioner at the military court to deal with the matter. The military court, which was approached because of the substance’s highly explosive nature, responded that it was not its jurisdiction.

On May 28, State Security contacted the public prosecutor about the dangerous cache, and was ordered to liaise with port authorities. On July 20, the file was sent to Diab, who asked the Higher Defense Council to look into it. The council referred it on July 24 to the Public Works Ministry — the entity responsible for port operations — and the Ministry of Justice.

The Public Works Ministry received the file on the morning of Aug. 4, just hours before the blast flattened the port and surrounding areas. Diab’s office attributed the delay in its arrival to the coroanvirus lockdown. The ministry wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The current cabinet received the file 14 days prior to the explosion and acted on it in a matter of days, a government spokesman said.

Authorities have detained the former and current general managers of Lebanese Customs and questioned a number of security officials and public works ministers. It has also placed all former and current officials responsible for the port under house arrest.

Outrage against the government, already under fire for failing to take action to reverse a calamitous financial meltdown in recent months, has boiled up in violent protests. Demonstrators briefly occupied several government buildings and set up nooses in downtown Beirut on Saturday for politicians they blame for the blast. Security forces fired tear gas in response.

With the estimated price tag on the damage ranging anywhere from $5 billion and $15 billion, global leaders on Sunday took part in a video conference meant to drum up emergency aid, hosted by the United Nations and Lebanon’s former colonial power, France. French President Emmanuel Macron promised on a visit to Lebanon on Thursday that any aid will go directly to the Lebanese people via non-governmental organizations and bypass a political class notorious for corruption and mismanagement.

Diab has promised to propose an early election, though that may not be enough to quell fury over an explosion whose sheer scale drove home to many the extent of the state’s failings.



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