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By Dana Khraiche, Youssef Diab and Verity Ratcliffe (Bloomberg) — The volatile chemical that Lebanese authorities blame for Tuesday’s lethal blast in Beirut had been lying in storage at the city’s port for six years in spite of warnings from customs officials about its hazards, documents show.
The ammonium nitrate arrived as cargo on the ship Rhosus in 2014, according to two letters issued by the director general of Lebanese Customs. For reasons that are unclear, dockworkers unloaded the chemical, which can be used to make fertilizers and explosives, and put it into storage.
Customs officials later asked judicial authorities at least twice to issue orders for the ammonium nitrate to be confiscated or re-exported, according to the letters. In one of the letters, dated May 3, 2016, the director general at that time, Shafik Merhe, warned of “the extreme danger” from storing the chemical in a warehouse “in these unsuitable weather conditions.” The material posed a risk to the staff and the port, he said.
Lebanese broadcaster LBCI reported that the Rhosus had been scheduled to sail with its cargo from Beirut six years ago but stayed at the port due to a mechanical failure. Workers welding a door on Tuesday started a fire that ignited the chemicals, LBCI said, citing people who attended a Supreme Council of Defense briefing after the blast.
The explosion killed at least 100 people and wounded thousands more. Authorities blamed a quantity of ammonium nitrate equivalent to 1,800 tons of TNT that had been stored at the port, without saying what triggered the blast.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Tuesday described the storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port as “unacceptable” and said that those responsible would be held accountable.
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