Lebanon’s president and prime minister were warned last month that a stash of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut could destroy the city if it exploded, it has emerged.
Security officials wrote a letter on July 20 saying the industrial chemicals which had been idling in a warehouse since 2013 needed to be secured immediately.
Just over two weeks later, the stockpile went up in a massive blast that obliterated most of the port and swathes of the capital, killed at least 163 people, injured 6,000 and has sparked mass protests against Lebanon’s elite.
Prime minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation yesterday and blamed the blast on the incompetence of the elite, declaring that an ‘apparatus of corruption bigger than the state’ was blocking the path to reform.
However, the documents seen by Reuters show that both Diab and President Michel Aoun had been warned in a private letter that ‘this could destroy Beirut if it exploded’.
Diab’s camp claimed he had forwarded the letter to the Supreme Defence Council within 48 hours, pointing the finger at ‘previous administrations [who] had over six years and did nothing’.
Details of the private letter emerged in a report by the General Directorate of State Security on events leading up to the explosion.
While the content of the letter was not in the report, a senior security official said it summed up the findings of a judicial investigation launched in January which concluded the chemicals needed to be secured immediately.
‘There was a danger that this material, if stolen, could be used in a terrorist attack,’ the official said.
‘At the end of the investigation, Prosecutor General (Ghassan) Oweidat prepared a final report which was sent to the authorities,’ he said. ‘I warned them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded.’
A representative for Diab said the PM received the letter on July 20 and it was sent to the Supreme Defence Council for advice within 48 hours.
‘The current cabinet received the file 14 days prior to the explosion and acted on it in a matter of days. Previous administrations had over six years and did nothing,’ they said. The president’s office has not commented.
Hezbollah-backed Diab announced the government’s resignation last night while President Aoun – who has rejected calls for an international probe into the disaster – is also facing pressure to quit.
Many in Lebanon see the blast as a symbol of the failed political system, and protests have broken out with tear gas fired on crowds after months of political and economic meltdown.
Even as Diab spoke, security forces in central Beirut clashed for a third night with protesters demanding sweeping change to the political system.
At least nine lawmakers have also announced they would quit in protest, as have two senior members of the Beirut local government.
Lebanon’s system is modelled on that of former colonial power France, where the president appoints the prime minister and is not required to resign along with the cabinet.
However, Aoun is also under pressure to quit and his portrait was burned by demonstrators who burst into the foreign ministry building during angry protests at the weekend.
The country’s sectarian power-sharing system requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to be a Sunni and the parliament speaker to be a Shi’ite.
France, whose president Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut in the days after the blast, called for the ‘rapid formation’ of a new government.
Lebanon is already seeking $20billion in funding from the IMF and now faces billions more in disaster costs, with losses from the explosion estimated to be between $10billion and $15billion.
A week after the enormous chemical blast which was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, residents and volunteers were still clearing the debris off the streets.
International rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialised equipment remained at work at ‘ground zero’ on Monday, where the search is now for bodies and not survivors.
The Lebanese army said yesterday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble with the help of Russian and French rescue teams, raising the death toll to 163.
The explosion, which drew comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb 75 years ago, has also injured more than 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless.
The disaster also sparked widespread panic over wheat shortages after 15,000 tonnes of grains were blasted out of the silos.
The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed.
Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port.
He said an investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.
‘There are two possible scenarios for what happened: it was either negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb,’ he said last Friday.
The shipment of ammonium nitrate was officially destined for Mozambique when it sailed on the cargo ship Rhosus in 2013, but the vessel made an unscheduled stop in Beirut where the chemicals were impounded.
The captain of the Rhosus claims he was told to stop in Beirut to pick up extra cargo – while Mozambique has denied all knowledge of the shipment.
Cypriot police said on Thursday that they had questioned Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin over his alleged links the ship and its cargo.
Beirut’s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties.
Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when demonstrators took to the streets over the country’s economic crisis.
The personal bodyguard of top official Nabih Berry was pictured firing live rounds at protesters over the weekend as fury over the Beirut explosion threatens to spark a revolution.
Sporting jeans and a black top, the Hezbollah-linked bodyguard pointed a shotgun at swarms of demonstrators yesterday afternoon and fired in their direction as huge protests rocked the Lebanese capital.
Protesters accused the political elite of siphoning off state resources after last week mobbing French president Emmanuel Macron with demands for reform.
‘If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,’ Macron said after being met at the airport by President Aoun last week.
France has always maintained close ties with Lebanon, which was administered by France under a League of Nations mandate until 1943 when it gained independence.
Officials have estimated losses of around $15billion from the explosion, a bill which Lebanon cannot afford after already defaulting on sovereign debt.
Eli Abi Hanna’s house and his car repair shop were destroyed in the blast.
‘The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,’ he said. ‘It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.’
Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.
‘It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,’ said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.
Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon’s chronic electricity crisis: ‘Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.’
‘It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,’ said university student Marilyne Kassis.
An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief.
But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank cheques to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt.
Some are concerned about the influence of Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday that countries should refrain from politicising the port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.
Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighbourhoods were wrecked.
‘It is very sad. We are burying people every day. Forty percent of my church have lost their businesses,’ said a priest.