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The Beirut explosion exposed the flip side of international shipping

Lebanon: A gap in the international maritime system that trapped 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut is believed to have been the cause of the catastrophic explosion.

On the evening of August 4, a fire broke out in a warehouse near a port in the capital Beirut, Lebanon, finally erupting in a catastrophic explosion that left at least 158 dead, more than 6,000 injured and about 300,000 people. House. Videos on social media showed a huge orange fireball bursting out, accompanied by a fierce explosion, creating a huge white mushroom cloud.

According to Laleh Khalili, professor of international politics at Queen Mary University London, England, while the attention and rage of public opinion have been on the weakness of the Lebanese government, the roots of the disaster are far deeper. so. It is the laxity of the maritime network and the tricks of the maritime enterprises to circumvent international regulations.

Photo cut from video of an explosion containing ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut exploded on August 4. Video: ShehabAgency.

The “culprit” that directly caused the explosion that devastated more than half of the city of Beirut is believed to be 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a substance commonly used as fertilizer and explosives, stored in port warehouses for more than six years.

In September 2013, the cargo ship Rhosus, owned by Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, registered for a company in Bulgaria and flying the Moldovan flag, began a journey of carrying more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate from the city of Batumi, Georgia. , to Mozambique. Explosive maker Fabrica de Explosivos de Mozambique (FEM) confirmed it placed this order to produce explosives for mining companies.

Rhosus’s crew then consisted of eight Ukrainians and two Russians, led by Captain Boris Prokoshev. They boarded the ship unaware that the previous crew had left the ship in protest to be unpaid.

While passing through the Mediterranean, Grechushkin abruptly asked Captain Prokoshev to call at the Port of Beirut to fetch more cargo to the port of Aqaba in Jordan, allegedly due to financial difficulties, before continuing his journey to Africa to deliver the ammonium. nitrate for FEM.

However, the Rhosus was unable to leave Beirut, because it was confiscated by Lebanese authorities for violating International Maritime Organization standards and failing to pay docking fees and other service charges. As a rule, ships can also be detained for other reasons, such as not having the necessary documents, considered unsafe or harmful to the environment.

Grechushkin, owner of Rhosus, has registered the ship in Moldova, where the registration procedure is looser than most other countries for labor, health, safety and environmental regulations. Such an open registration regime is known as a “convenient flag”, which means that a registered ship flies the flag of a country other than the nationality of its owner.

Ship Rhosus, a ship flying the Moldovan flag transported more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate to Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: MarineTraffic.

The idea to fly “convenient flags” was first invented by American lawyers in their “backyard” countries such as Panama, Liberia and Honduras. Even today, most profits from some of the agencies that allow the registration of the largest “convenience flag” go to private companies in the US.

“The benefit of convenient flagging is that it is possible to evade taxes, avoid a substantial amount of insurance money, bring great profits to ship owners to pay sailors who could come from anywhere in the world. “American commentator John McPhee said.

When realizing the danger of paying a heavy price for the Rhosus detention, Grechushkin began bankruptcy proceedings, leaving the ship and crew behind. Mozambique’s FEM company has also abandoned its ammonium nitrate order.

Professor Khalili said that the situation of abandoned ships is widespread and alarming, often to avoid paying the wages they owe their crew. Sometimes goods on these ships are auctioned off to pay creditors, unpaid wages to crew, or cleaning and transfer fees.

However, the resale option was not applied to more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate aboard the Rhosus. Lebanese officials also did not allow four crew members, including Captain Prokoshev, to leave the ship without a replacement crew. They were stranded on the train for almost a year, unpaid, without access to electronic communications, while their supplies of food and fuel were dwindling.

Khalili said the Rhosus’ crew were in fact hostages during negotiations between the Lebanese port authorities, who did not want to be responsible for the dangerous shipment on board, and the ship’s owner. In August 2014, a Lebanese judge ordered the crew to be released. More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were transferred to the warehouse at the port of Beirut.

According to Khalili, the anger of most Lebanese at the weak government is justified, but deadly loopholes in the international maritime system are also a factor.

Not all countries in the world are members of any international maritime agreement. Even after greed

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