An official investigation into Beirut’s devastating blast is barely into its second day, but there is already much about Tuesday’s tragedy that has become clear.
The explosion that killed at least 145 and left hundreds of thousands homeless could not have happened without a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate.
It could not have happened without that explosive material being confiscated from, or possibly abandoned by, the Rhosus, a Russian-owned cargo ship.
And it could not have happened without the negligence of Lebanese authorities in allowing the dangerous cargo to sit in deteriorating conditions in the docks for six years.
The figure of Igor Grechushkin features prominently in the first two links of that hapless chain. A rough-and-tumble businessman from Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia, Grechushkin was on Thursday confirmed as the Rhosus’s owner by Russian state media.
He had made contact with the Russian consulate in Nicosia, diplomatic sources said. Greek media have reported he is being sought by Cypriot police for questioning.
Grechushkin controlled the Rhosus from a company registered in the Marshall Islands. But he conducted his business from Cyprus, a traditional, low-tax base for all kinds of Russian business.
We already know much about the Rhosus’s fateful last journey. Contracted to transport 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate from Batumi in Georgia to an explosive factory in Mozambique, the ship was abandoned after failing a safety inspection on a stop in Beirut in November 2013. The vessel, and part of the crew, were held in port as authorities worked out what to do.
The crew was only released 11 months later, in September 2014 – the same time the dangerous cargo was unloaded to a warehouse in the docks.
In interviews with Russian media on Tuesday night, the captain of the vessel described how Grechushkin stopped paying the bills and left the Russian-Ukrainian crew to their fate. “If we weren’t brought food by a certain Beiruti guy, we would have died,” Boris Prokoshev told the Mediazona publication. Neither Grechushkin nor the intended recipients took any subsequent interest in the ship’s dangerous cargo, the captain added.
He wrote to President Putin to express his concern. The Independent has seen several pro forma replies sent from the Kremlin from April to August, 2014. Capt Prokoshev said he was told by a consul not to expect a "special forces" rescue.
Speaking to The Independent, the experienced sailor said he was initially encouraged by the prospect of working for Grechushkin, a fellow Russian. He says he met Grechushkin just twice. The first time was before the businessman took ownership of the ship, and was inspecting it in Lanarka port. The second, during a stopover in Piraeus, Greece, was when he realised his boss may not have enjoyed the soundest financial footing. The crew had ordered necessary supplies for the ship, but Grechushkin refused to pay for two thirds of them.
There were also problems with crews walking out. It would only be later that the captain realised they had not been paid for four months.
Capt Prokoshev says he gave up on an attempt to sue the absent owner for lost income after a Russian court in Khabarovsk advised him to pursue the claim in Cyprus. According to documents seen by The Independent, Grechushkin owed his crew over $200,000 by the time they were freed to travel home in September 2014.
Mikhail Voytenko, the editor of Maritime Bulletin who presciently referred to the Rhosus’s cargo as “a floating bomb” six years ago, suggests no aspect of the story was particularly unusual.
Ammonium nitrate was a common enough cargo, he tells The Independent, used the world over for fertilisers and mining explosives, and this is likely what it was destined for in Mozambique. “Chancer businessmen” at the start of shipping careers often take on “risky jobs” without proper finance to back them up, he suggests. Meanwhile, port authorities around the world are guilty of negligence, corruption or both.
It was the confluence of all three factors together, Voytenko says, that made the events of Tuesday possible. In the search for fall guys, the media had arguably focused too much on Grechushkin, who had been “deprived of his assets and had no obvious legal or factual obligation”. The most important of the three factors was the negligence and corruption of Lebanese authorities, he suggests.
“Whatever in the world made the port authorities keep the cargo for six years is beyond my comprehension,” he says. “It seems likely that authorities couldn’t decide among themselves just how to split up the profits.”
Voytenko says the sell-on value of the ammonium nitrate would be worth upwards of $1m.
According to Capt Prokoshev, that figure corresponds to the amount Igor Grechushkin took for payment for the shipment in Batumi. “Grechushkin simply decided to dump the ship and pocket the million,” the captain said in an interview with Radio Svoboda, without offering paper evidence of his claims.
The Independent was unable to reach Grechushkin to confirm this or other aspects of the story.
This article was updated on 7 August to reflect new material from an interview with Capt Prokoshev
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