Aug. 5 (UPI) — The Lebanese government on Wednesday placed Beirut port officials on house arrest as they investigate why highly explosive materials linked to this week’s explosions were stored in warehouses there.
Authorities said a fire at the port caused a number of small explosions Tuesday before igniting 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the chemical for a larger explosion that knocked out windows across the city and led to at least 135 deaths and more than 4,000 injuries.
Beirut broadcaster OTV reported that the ammonium nitrate was placed in the warehouse six years ago by court order. The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, told the station that customs and state officials asked authorities for the chemical to be moved but “nothing happened.”
The Guardian reported the chemical, which is used to make bombs and in fertilizers, was confiscated when a Russian-owned, Moldovan-registered vessel carrying it was impounded at the port. The ship, the Rhosus, was deemed to be unseaworthy, but the ship’s captain told Radio Free Europe there was nothing wrong with the ship and it was detained over failure to pay port fees.
During a legal battle that lasted until 2015, the ship’s captain and crew were forced to stay on board the Rhosus, prompting complaints from them about the safety of the chemical stores. After they left, Lebanese officials moved the ammonium nitrate to a warehouse at the port.
Lebanon’s customs director-general, Badri Daher, told broadcaster LBCI that in the intervening years, the agency sent six warnings to the judiciary about the dangerous substance.
“We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen,” he said. “We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why.”
The Lebanese Cabinet on Wednesday ordered port officials to be placed on house arrest until investigators can determine who is to blame for the blast. It’s unclear how many officials and at what seniority will be confined.
Lebanese Information Minister Manal Abdesamad said the military would oversee the home confinements and that the arrests would be made within the next five days.
“As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” Diab said.