Search for cause: Violent detonation in Beirut: Is ammonium nitrate to blame?

Search for cause
Violent detonation in Beirut: is ammonium nitrate to blame?

After the explosion, an elderly gentleman is sitting on the street with a bandage on his head in Beirut harbor. Photo: Marwan Naamani / dpa

© dpa-infocom GmbH

Bleeding people wander through rubble and dust after Beirut was rocked by a huge explosion. This could be triggered by a very large load of ammonium nitrate.

After the massive detonation in Beirut with more than 70 dead and 3000 injured, the search for possible causes begins in Lebanon.

The severe explosion could have triggered a very large amount of ammonium nitrate: an estimated 2,750 tons of the dangerous substance had been stored in the port of Beirut for years without safety precautions, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said according to the Presidential Office. There was no evidence of an attack or a political background.

The explosion plunged the Lebanese capital, whose population is currently suffering from a serious political and economic crisis, into even greater chaos. The shattered windows and debris pounded holes in the walls. Bleeding people wandered through rubble and dust, some streets were full of broken glass. Large parts of the port were completely destroyed. Beirut, where an estimated 2.4 million people live, has been declared a “disaster city”.

Ammonium nitrate, which is also used to make explosive devices, can detonate at higher temperatures. The substance is used for rocket propulsion and above all for the production of fertilizers. The colorless crystals were also in the dangerous goods warehouse in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, where 173 people were killed in 2015 after a series of explosions. In Germany, the handling of ammonium nitrate falls under the Explosives Act.

The fabric could have come from a cargo ship that Lebanese authorities reportedly banned from continuing in 2013 due to various defects. The ship was accordingly on the way from Georgia to Mozambique in South Africa. The crew then ran out of fuel and provisions, the owner apparently gave up the ship. The crew was finally allowed to leave after a legal dispute. The ship was left with the dangerous cargo that was housed in a warehouse.

A huge mushroom cloud had formed in the sky during the detonation. A blast of lightning spread in a flash. There was damage even miles away. The government palace, the Finnish embassy and the residence of ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri were damaged. At Suk Beirut, a modern shopping area, shattered window panes. A UN peacekeeping ship in Lebanon (Unifil) was also damaged. The blue helmets were injured, the mission said.

President Michel Aoun called an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday to clarify the causes of the explosion. “I won’t rest until I know the person in charge and give him the toughest punishment,” Aoun said on Twitter, quoted by the President’s Office. Prime Minister Diab declared Wednesday the day of nationwide mourning in memory of the victims. A two-week emergency was declared for the city.

Governments in other countries were concerned and offered quick support. Chancellor Angela Merkel was “shaken”, as deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer quoted the chancellor. Germany stands by Lebanon in the «difficult hour», tweeted Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Employees of the German embassy were also among the injured.

Aid was also promised by the European Union and France – Lebanon’s former mandate. UN Secretary General António Guterres was dismayed and expressed his “deepest condolences” to the families of the victims. US President Donald Trump seemed to classify the incident as an attack: his “generals” assumed a kind of bomb, said Trump in the White House. The explosion did not indicate an accident, Trump said, citing his military advisers.

Even Israel, which has no diplomatic relations with neighboring Lebanon, offered “medical humanitarian aid” through foreign channels. Officially, both countries are still at war. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenasi cleared speculation that Israel might be behind the explosion.


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