US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

A Lebanese youth wrapped in the national flag looks at the damaged grain silos at Beirut's port, on August 11, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

  • Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast
  • The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.


Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

Updated 21 September 2020

Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

  • UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast
  • Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week
BEIRUT: Lebanon has retrieved the bodies of four people including a child after they tried to flee the crisis-hit country by sea on an overloaded dinghy, the civil defense said Monday.
A week ago, UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast.
Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week, during which time several passengers had died or jumped overboard to find help.
The bodies are presumed to be from the same ill-fated crossing.
Since Friday, “we have retrieved four bodies — belonging to two Lebanese, one of whom was a child, a young Indian man and a Syrian man,” Samir Yazbek, the head of the civil defense’s sea rescue unit, told AFP.
The bodies were found in four separate locations off the north and south coasts of the country, and the search was ongoing, he added.
The UN refugee agency said last week that 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three people of other nationalities had been rescued from the boat.
It is unclear how many men, women and children originally clambered aboard the dinghy, and therefore how many are still missing.
On Saturday, the navy said it would step up its searches within and outside Lebanon’s territorial waters to find any other victims.
Relatives of those who went missing from the impoverished north Lebanese city of Tripoli say the people smuggler involved in the crossing has dropped off the radar since the tragedy.
They have filed three legal complaints against the man, who they say is a well-known figure in the community.
A military source on Saturday said a person acting as an intermediary between passengers and the boat owner had been arrested.
In recent weeks, dozens of Lebanese and Syrians have tried to make the perilous sea journey from Lebanon to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, authorities on both sides say.
The Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, lies just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.
Lebanon is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades, compounded since February by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It is also reeling from a monster blast at Beirut’s port last month that killed more than 190 people, ravaged large parts of the capital and reignited public anger against the political class.