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Over 4 tons of ammonium nitrate found near site of Beirut port blast

Military says it is dealing with latest cache of volatile chemicals discovered in Lebanese capital since massive explosion, as former PM testifies to inquiry

A view shows the damaged site and grain silo following the massive August 4 blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut on August 31, 2020. (GONZALO FUENTES / POOL / AFP)
A view shows the damaged site and grain silo following the massive August 4 blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut on August 31, 2020. (GONZALO FUENTES / POOL / AFP)

The Lebanese military said Thursday it had discovered more than 4 tons of ammonium nitrate near Beirut’s port, a month after thousands of tons of the compound exploded there, devastating the capital.

According to the military, army experts were called in for an inspection and found 4.35 tons of the dangerous chemical in four containers stored near the port. There were no details on the origin of the chemicals or their owner,

The military statement said that customs officials had called in the army to inspect containers at a facility near the port, where they found 4.35 tons of ammonium nitrate. It said army experts were “dealing with the material,” an apparent reference to it being destroyed.

The August 4 blast that left more than 190 dead was caused by 2,750 tons of the volatile ammonium nitrate that caught fire. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.

The port chief, Bassem al-Qaisi, told reporters on Thursday that there are 43 containers containing flammable material left in the area, adding that the army is doing its best to keep the containers safe. Al-Qaisi said he has repeatedly asked customs authorities to take away the material.

French emergency workers, part of a special unit working with chemicals, walk next to damaged containers near the site of last week’s explosion, in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 10, 2020 (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Days after the August 4 blast, French and Italian chemical experts working amid the remains of the port identified more than 20 containers carrying dangerous chemicals. The army later said that these containers were moved and stored safely in locations away from the port.

French experts as well as the FBI have taken part in the investigation into the August  4 blast, at the request of Lebanese authorities. Their findings have yet to be released.

So far, authorities have detained 25 people over last month’s explosion, most of them port and customs officials.

The lead investigator in the port blast, Fadi Sawwan, heard testimony from the country’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab.

Diab, who resigned under pressure following the explosion, is the most senior politician to testify before judicial authorities.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks to the media outside the Beirut international airport, April 5, 2020. (Anway Amro/AFP)

Sawan listened to Diab’s testimony in his “capacity as a witness,” a judicial source told AFP.

Sawan was seeking to determine “how long he knew as prime minister of the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port,” according to the source.

He also wanted to find out “why he did not instruct the government to take measures to remove the dangerous (substance) after receiving reports from security services.”

On July 20, Diab and President Michel Aoun both received a report from the State Security agency warning of the danger posed by the highly unstable material.

After the explosion, the agency confirmed it had alerted authorities in a detailed report quoting a chemical expert who had visited the warehouse.

If ignited, the ammonium nitrate would cause a huge explosion that would be especially destructive to the port, warned the report seen by AFP.

Lebanese authorities have launched their own investigation after rejecting calls for an international probe.

Also among those arrested are three Syrian workers who carried out welding work on the warehouse on the day of the blast.

Security sources have suggested the work could have started a fire that triggered the blast, but some observers have rejected the theory.

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