Owner of ship tied to Beirut blast had links to Hezbollah’s bank — report

German weekly and investigative journalism group say Charalambos Manoli was the true owner of the Rhosus and that a large quantity of ammonium nitrate went missing before explosion

Rescue workers and security officers work at the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Rescue workers and security officers work at the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The ship that carried the huge supply of ammonium nitrate that exploded earlier this month at Beirut’s port was reportedly owned by a Cypriot businessman with ties to a bank used by the Hezbollah terror group, and not in fact a Russian national.

The Rhosus, which sailed under a Moldovan flag, headed from Georgia to Mozambique in September 2013 with 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a volatile chemical commonly used in fertilizers and in explosives.

The ship, which was leaking and had other technical defects, docked in Beirut to pick up more cargo, but never left the Lebanese capital, as it was deemed unseaworthy by local authorities and had failed to pay fees.

The ammonium nitrate was then kept in unsafe storage at the port for years, despite numerous appeals by officials to remove the hazardous substance from the city.

Following the August 4 blast, which killed at least 180 people and wounded thousands more, reports said the Rhosus was owned by Igor Grechushkin. However, a report released Friday by German weekly Der Spiegel and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said the vessel was in fact owned by Charalambos Manoli and that Grechushkin only chartered the Rhosus.

After claiming he sold the Rhosus to Grechushkin, Manoli acknowledged to OCCRP that the Russian businessman had tried to buy it from him, but refused to give any further information.

According to the report, Manoli borrowed $4 million in 2011 from FBME, a Tanzania-based bank accused by the US of laundering money for Hezbollah and a front company tied to Syria’s chemical weapons research center. The bank was later shuttered by Tanzania due to the US charges.

Manoli, who had offered the Rhosus as collateral, still reportedly owed $1.1 million in outstanding debt to FBME in October 2014. While he denied any link between his debts and the decision to stop the ship in Beirut, an investigator was quoted saying in the report that FBME was known for pressuring borrowers to do favors for suspect clients such as Hezbollah.

The Mozambican purchaser of the ammonium nitrate, Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, or FEM, never claimed the cargo after it was unloaded in Beirut, the report noted. It said the broker for the ammonium nitrate asked Lebanese authorities to inspect it for quantity and quality in 2015, but didn’t make any apparent effort to reacquire the chemicals.

A large quantity of the ammonium nitrate that had been aboard the Rhosus went missing from the warehouse in the Lebanese capital where it was being stored prior to the August blast, the report also said. It cited an inspection earlier this year that signaled some of the cargo was no longer there, a missing gate to the warehouse and a large hole in the wall, as well as estimates by European intelligence officials probing the blast that it was 700-1,000 tons.

This picture shows a view of Beirut’s port in the aftermath of a huge chemical explosion that disfigured the Lebanese capital, on August 14, 2020. (AFP)

The report comes days after German daily Diel Welt reported Wednesday that Iran supplied Hezbollah with hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate in 2013-2014, around the same time Lebanon confiscated the cargo aboard the Rhosus.

Citing western security services, the newspaper said Tehran’s extra-territorial Quds Force supplied Hezbollah with some 670 tons of ammonium nitrate in mid-and late-2013, charging some $72,000 for it.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has “categorically” denied that his group had stored any weapons or explosives at Beirut’s port. “I would like to absolutely, categorically rule out anything belonging to us at the port. No weapons, no missiles, or bombs or rifles or even a bullet or ammonium nitrate,” Nasrallah said. “No cache, no nothing. Not now, not ever.”

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech in the aftermath of the deadly explosion in Beirut, on August 7, 2020 (al-Manar screenshot)

Die Welt acknowledged there was no evidence Hezbollah was responsible for the ammonium nitrate coming to the port. But it suggested the terror group’s interest in the material could have contributed to authorities’ failure to remove it from the port.

Hezbollah has previous connections to ammonium nitrate, including incidents in Germany and the UK, both widely reported at the time, in which its agents were reportedly found with substantial quantities of the material. In London in 2015, following a Mossad tip, British intelligence reportedly found four Hezbollah operatives with three tons of ammonium nitrate held in flour sacks. A similar process led to the discovery in Germany of Hezbollah operatives with enough ammonium nitrate “to blow up a city.”

A Channel 13 report earlier this month claimed Hezbollah planned to use the ammonium nitrate stockpile that caused the blast at Beirut’s port against Israel in a “Third Lebanon War” that may come in the future. It did not cite sources.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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