Lebanese Army Finds Explosive Material Near Beirut Port

A damaged grain silo at Beirut’s port seen through debris from last month’s explosion.

Photo: Sam Tarling For The Wall Street Journal

BEIRUT—The Lebanese army found more than four tons of ammonium nitrate near Beirut’s port, where a larger cache of the same highly explosive material caused last month’s deadly explosion that ripped through much of the capital’s central districts.

An engineering team discovered the chemical during a search of a warehouse that was requested by the customs agency at the port, an army official said Thursday. The army in a statement said it dealt with the ammonium nitrate but did not specify how.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the chemical was from the same stockpile—which authorities said was about 2,750 tons—that blew up. But it served as a grim reminder of the security lapses that led to the Aug. 4 blast that killed at least 190 people, injured more than 6,000 and left thousands of homes in ruins.

The Lebanese government and ruling elite have come under scathing domestic and international criticism for allowing the highly combustible material to be kept so close to the city center for nearly seven years after it was unloaded from a leaking ship.

Foreign leaders have called for an international investigation into the explosion, but so far the Lebanese government has resisted such demands and is carrying out its own probe.

Former and current customs officials have been called in for questioning, but it was unclear if Thursday’s discovery was related to the investigation or part of the port authority’s attempts to prove its competence.

The latest discovery of explosive chemicals comes days after the judicial investigator in the case issued arrest warrants for Beirut port’s harbor master and the general director of land and maritime transport, according to state media.

Judge Fadi Sawan also interrogated and had arrested a port intelligence official and numerous security officers.

But Lebanese worry that lower-ranking officials will be scapegoated for the explosion while the political elite escape accountability for a catastrophe they say arose from government corruption and ineptitude.

The chemical that blew up was seized in Beirut’s port in 2013 when the ship it was on was found to be unseaworthy and its owner subsequently failed to pay shipping agency fees. It ended up in the port’s warehouse as Lebanese officials, lawyers, judges and a Russian shipper fought over what to do with the toxic cargo. 

The blast and the bureaucratic failures that led to it have made jittery and still-wounded residents anxious that other poorly stored chemicals around the country could lead to another explosion. But they have little trust in the government to handle it and instead have been calling on TV stations to investigate unidentified stacks near their homes and neighborhoods.

The country’s prime minister and his cabinet resigned under pressure from protesters who demanded justice for those killed in the blast. But this week’s appointment of the country’s ambassador to Germany as the new prime minister has dismayed many Lebanese and convinced them that the explosion won’t lead to real political change.

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Appeared in the September 4, 2020, print edition as ‘More Hazardous Chemicals Found.’

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