Beirut explosion: Lebanon president says he knew about chemicals weeks before blast

Lebanon's president Michel Aoun admitted he knew about the stockpile of chemicals in the port. Credit: AP

Lebanon’s president has admitted he knew about the stockpile of explosive chemicals that were being kept in Beirut’s port.

Michel Aoun, in office since 2016, said he was told of the stockpile nearly three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed”.

Newly surfaced documents also reveal officials had been warned at least 10 times about stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the seven years the explosives had been kept there.

The huge explosion - which could be felt more than 150 miles away in Cyprus - was caused after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being kept in the port blew up.

At least 154 people have been killed and thousands more injured, with the blast making another 300,000 people homeless. Many more are still missing.

Mr Aoun suggested his responsibility ended when he ordered the explosive's removal, saying he had no authority over the port and that previous governments had been told of the presence of the cargo.

People look at the scene of Tuesday’s explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut Credit: Felipe Dana/AP

“Do you know how many problems have been accumulating?” Mr Aoun replied when a reporter pressed whether he should have followed up on his order.

The ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilisers and explosives, originated from a cargo ship called MV Rhosus that had been travelling from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013.

It made an unscheduled detour to Beirut as the Russian ship owner was struggling with debts and hoped to earn some extra cash in Lebanon.

Unable to pay port fees and reportedly leaking, the ship was impounded.

The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible

Michel Aoun

The first known document about it came on February 21 2014, three months after the ship’s arrival.

Colonel Joseph Skaff, a senior customs official, wrote to the customs authority’s anti-smuggling department warning the material still on board the ship docked at port was “extremely dangerous and endangers public safety”.

Further concerns were raised in June 2014 and Badri Daher, the head of the customs department, said he and his predecessor sent six letters to a judge warning about the danger.

Investigators probing the blast have focused on personnel at the Port of Beirut, Lebanon’s main port and at least 16 port employees have been detained and others questioned.

The port area lies in devastation following the explosion Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

The explosion of the ammonium nitrate, after apparently being set off by a fire, was the biggest in Lebanon’s history.

The known death toll reached 154, including bodies recovered from the rubble on Friday, and more than 5,000 people were wounded.

Mr Aoun’s comments on Friday were the most senior confirmation that top politicians had been aware of the stockpile.

“The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible. I don’t know where it was placed. I don’t even know the level of danger. I have no authority to deal directly with the port,” he told a news conference.