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Ship that delivered explosive material to Beirut port was never supposed to stop there, says captain

The chemicals that went up in flames in Beirut's deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

Russian-leased cargo ship carried ammonium nitrate to Beirut port in 2013 and left it after port dispute

Boris Prokoshev, captain of the Russian-leased cargo vessel Rhosus, centre, boatswain Boris Musinchak, left, and another crew member pose in the port of Beirut in summer 2014. The MV Rhosus docked in Beirut's port in 2013 on its way to Mozambique to pick up some additional cargo and never left. (Personal archives of Boris Musinchak/Reuters)

The chemicals that went up in flames in Beirut's deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

"They were being greedy," said Boris Prokoshev, who was captain of the Rhosus in 2013 when, he says, the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.

Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible chemical compound, from Georgia to Mozambique when the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.

The crew were asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan's Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey to Africa, where the ammonium nitrate was to be delivered to an explosives manufacturer.

But the ship never left Beirut, the crew having tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo and the owners getting embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.

"It was impossible," said Prokoshev, 70, of the operation to try and load the extra cargo, speaking by phone from his home in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

"It could have ruined the whole ship, and I said no."

The retired sea captain said he was baffled earlier this week when he awoke to find an email from a journalist asking him about the Rhosus.

"I didn't understand anything," he told The Associated Press. "I opened my inbox and saw a letter about the Rhosus. I thought maybe they were sending me money, my salary."

Crew spent 11 months on ship in Beirut port

In 2013, after it became clear the additional cargo could not be accommodated, Lebanese authorities impounded the vessel for failing to pay port fees. Prokoshev and lawyers acting for some creditors accused the ship's owner of abandoning the vessel without paying his outstanding debts to the port or the crew.  

Nearly a year later, once the crew had disembarked, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded and put in a dock warehouse for safety reasons.

On Tuesday, that stockpile caught fire and exploded not far from a built-up residential area of the city. The huge blast killed more than 145 people, injured 5,000, flattened buildings and made more than a quarter of a million people homeless.

People evacuate wounded after the massive explosion in Beirut Tuesday. At least 145 people were killed and thousands wounded when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had been offloaded from the Rhosus exploded. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

The ship might have succeeded in leaving Beirut had it managed to load the additional cargo.

The crew had stacked the equipment, including excavators and road-rollers, on top of the doors to the cargo hold, where the ammonium nitrate was housed, according to the ship's Ukrainian boatswain, Boris Musinchak. But the hold doors buckled.

"The ship was old, and the cover of the hold bent," Musinchak said by phone. "We decided not to take risks."

Immigration restrictions forced the captain and three crew members to remain onboard while the legal dispute dragged on for 11 months, without wages and with only limited supplies of food.

At some point, Prokoshev said, he sold some of the ship's fuel and used the cash to hire lawyers, who got the crew released on compassionate grounds in 2014. 

The lawyers' application to the court emphasized "the imminent danger the crew was facing given the 'dangerous' nature of the cargo," the lawyers wrote in a 2015 article published by shiparrested.com, a website providing information on ship arrests and releases. 

Once the crew left, the ammonium nitrate was unloaded.

"The cargo was highly explosive. That's why it was kept on board when we were there ... that ammonium nitrate had a very high concentration," Prokoshev said.

MV Rhosus is seen in Volos, Greece, on April 19, 2013. The ship was never supposed to stop in Beirut, but its owner wanted to pick up extra cargo, claims Prokoshev. (Antony Vrailas/The Associated Press)

Bound for Mozambique      

Prokoshev identified the ship's owner as Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin. Attempts to contact Grechushkin were unsuccessful.

Cypriot police questioned Grechushkin at his home in Cyprus on Thursday, a security source said. A Cyprus police spokesman said an individual, whom he did not name, had been questioned at the request of Interpol Beirut in relation to the cargo.

The ammonium nitrate was sold by Georgian fertilizer maker Rustavi Azot LLC and was to be delivered to a Mozambique explosives maker Fabrica de Explosivos.

WATCH | An explosives expert explains what made ship's cargo so dangerous:

Chris Hunter says the huge quantity of ammonium nitrate should have been immediately moved out of the busy port after it arrived. 1:51

A senior representative for Fabrica de Explosivos did not immediately respond when sent a request for comment on LinkedIn.

Levan Burdiladze, the Rustavi Azot plant director, told Reuters that his company had only operated the chemical factory for the last three years and so he could not confirm whether the ammonium nitrate was produced there.

He called the decision to store the material in Beirut port a "gross violation of safe storage measures, considering that ammonium nitrate loses its useful properties in six months."

Prokoshev and crew members demanding their release from the Rhosus in summer 2014. The crew was stuck on the ship for 11 months, without wages and with little access to food, before lawyers helped secure their release. (Personal archives of Boris Musinchak/Reuters)

Initial Lebanese investigations into what happened have pointed to inaction and negligence in the handling of the potentially dangerous chemical.

Lebanon's cabinet on Wednesday agreed to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, ministerial sources said.

The head of Beirut port and the head of customs said that several letters were sent to the judiciary asking for the material be removed, but no action was taken.

WATCH | See some of the worst damage left by the blast:

The damage at Beirut's port, where the blast occurred, shows the full power of the explosion. 1:26

Reuters could not immediately reach Lebanon's justice minister for comment. The Justice Ministry is closed for three days of national mourning.

According to Prokoshev, the ship had been leaking but was seaworthy when it sailed into Beirut in September 2013. However, he said Lebanese authorities paid little attention to the ammonium nitrate, which had been stacked in the hull in large sacks.

"I feel sorry for the people [killed or injured in the blast]. But local authorities, the Lebanese, should be punished. They did not care about the cargo at all," he said.

According to Prokoshev, he received an email in May 2018 from a lawyer telling him the ship sank "recently."

Prokoshev said the ship had a hole in the hull, and the crew, while on it, had to regularly pump water out to keep it afloat.

An analysis of a satellite image from February 2018 commissioned from space technology company Maxar by the New York Times showed the sunken ship a few hundred metres from the warehouse where its cargo was stored. The times reported that the ship sank between Feb. 16 and 18, 2018.

WATCH | Blast leaves an already struggling city devastated:

A desperate search for survivors is underway after the deadly blast at the port in Beirut, which left the city devastated. Several port officials have been placed under house arrest and Lebanon’s president is promising a transparent investigation into the explosion. 2:41

With files from the Associated Press

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