Captain Who Delivered Beirut Explosives Blames Lebanon Officials for Blast

The captain of the ship linked to the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut has blamed Lebanese authorities for the disaster. The comments came in a wide-ranging interview that sheds light on a chaotic journey that ended with some 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate stuck at the Lebanese port.

Boris Prokoshev was serving as the captain of the MV Rhosus in 2013 when the ship—and its cargo of ammonium nitrate—became stranded at the Beirut port. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on Wednesday that Tuesday's explosion was the fault of Lebanese officials who did not let the vessel leave the port, despite the obvious danger its cargo posed.

The Rhosus anchored in Beirut in 2013 after experiencing technical difficulties during a scheduled voyage from Georgia to Mozambique. Some reports say the vessel was then not allowed to leave the port after a safety inspection, though Prokoshev told RFE/RL that authorities actually held the ship over the non-payment of port fees.

Whatever the reason, Lebanese authorities took possession of the dangerous ammonium nitrate and stored it in warehouse 12 at the port. Here it remained—despite repeated warnings of the danger—until Tuesday's explosion.

According to Reuters, a fire spread from warehouse 9 before detonating the ammonium nitrate, producing an enormous explosion that has killed at least 137 people, injured more than 5,000 and left some 300,000 people homeless.

An investigation is underway into the cause, though the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International reported Thursday that a welder may have started the initial fire that led to the tragedy.

Regardless of the initial spark, the explosion appears to be the result of the official corruption and apathy that has so long plagued the young country. The ammonium nitrate was left at the port for six years, right alongside the densely populated city and despite the repeated warnings.

Prokoshev told RFE/RL that Lebanese authorities are to blame. "They should have gotten rid of the vessel right away instead of confiscating it and demanding fees for harboring it," Prokoshev said.

"Secondly, we are talking about ammonium nitrate here. They could have used it for their fields. Nobody was claiming it, which means it belonged to nobody," Prokoshev added.

The Rhosus never made it to Mozambique. Prokoshev said the ship sank two or three years ago because it was no longer being maintained.

Its owner—Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, who is believed to be resident in Cyprus—abandoned the vessel in Beirut. Prokoshev also said Grechushkin pressured the crew to take on more cargo in Beirut but that it was unloadable.

Prokoshev told the calamitous story of the Rhosus, and said Grechushkin still owes him and his fellow crew members tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid salaries. All his attempts to sue Grechushkin have failed because the businessman is no longer resident in Russia.

Prokoshev and the Rhosus' crew—most of whom were Ukrainian—were stranded in Beirut for almost a year, not allowed to leave by authorities. He described the experience as "incarceration" and said Grechushkin did not offer any financial support. Prokoshev said he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin once a month asking for help, but received none.

Prokoshev also said it was strange that the buyers of the ammonium nitrate in Mozambique never followed up in the failed delivery. He told RFE/RL that the Mozambique buyers had paid Grechushkin some $1 million for the goods to be transported, but they "did not show any movements at all" even though the cargo was lost in Beirut.

Anger is growing in Lebanon as more information emerges about the disaster. Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday that the explosion was a "great national disaster" and promised that "all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price."

Port officials believed to have overseen the ammonium nitrate have been placed under house arrest pending investigation, but customs officials have said they repeatedly asked the judiciary to deal with the dangerous cargo stored at the port.

Beirut, Lebanon, Russia, explosion, port, ship, blame
An aerial view of ruined structures at the port of Beirut, damaged by an explosion a day earlier, on August 5, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Haytham El Achkar/Getty Images/Getty