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U.S. Contractor Knew of Explosive Material in Beirut Since at Least 2016

2020-08-11 02:21:21
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An American contractor working with the U.S. Army warned at least four years ago about a large cache of potentially explosive chemicals that was stored in Beirut’s port in unsafe conditions, according to a United States diplomatic cable.

The presence of the chemicals was spotted and reported by an American port security expert during a safety inspection of the port, the cable said. Current and former American officials who have worked in the Mideast say the contractor would have been expected to report the finding to the U.S. Embassy or Pentagon.

The chemicals — 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate — exploded last Tuesday, Lebanese officials have said, shaking much of Lebanon, damaging buildings across a wide swath of central Beirut, killing more than 150 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

The blast fueled widespread anger at Lebanon’s political elite and led to the resignation of the government on Monday.

The fact that the United States may have known about the chemicals and warned no one shocked and angered Western diplomats, who lost two colleagues in the blast and saw several others wounded.

A senior State Department official denied that American officials were aware of the contractor’s findings and said the cable cited by The Times “shows that they had not” been informed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a cable that was not public, said the contractor “made an unofficial site visit to the port approximately four years ago, and was not at the time a U.S. government or State Department employee.” The official said the department had no record of the contractor communicating his findings until last week, after the deadly explosion.

The blast, which registered as a minor earthquake, tore through a number of central Beirut neighborhoods, destroying homes, shutting down three hospitals and leaving streets strewn with shattered glass and downed trees.

It also took a toll on Western diplomats, many of whom maintain missions in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, and live in high-rise apartments with commanding views of the Mediterranean and of the port, putting them directly in the path of the explosion.

The wife of the Dutch ambassador to Lebanon, Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, died from wounds sustained in the blast, the Dutch foreign ministry said. She had been standing in her living room when the explosion occurred.

A German consular officer, whose name has not been released, was also killed in the explosion.

Many other diplomats from nations allied with the United States had their windows shattered and property damaged. The British and French Embassies both sustained damage, and windows were shattered in the mansion where the French ambassador lives.

When informed by The Times about the contents of the cable, some expressed surprise and outrage that if the United States had the information, it was not shared.

“If confirmed, it would be very shocking to say the least,” said one Western diplomat whose apartment was damaged in the blast, speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol.

The United States is one of the few Western powers that bases its embassy, consulate and diplomats well outside Beirut. The heavily guarded American diplomatic compound in the mountain town of Awkar is about eight miles from the capital.

Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said that the American government was still unsure about what had caused the accident and that it might have been “a Hezbollah arms shipment that blew up.”

Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech last week, denied that its arsenal had anything to do with the blast. “I categorically deny the claim that Hezbollah has an arms cache, ammunition or anything else in the port,” he said.

Hezbollah is known to be careful with its weapons caches and explosive material, diplomats said. If they were using the ammonium nitrate at the port for their own purposes, it would be unusual for them to store it so carelessly.

Diplomats in Beirut and former Pentagon and U.S. intelligence officials said that while Hezbollah had a firm grip on Lebanon and controlled the airport and many of the border crossings to Syria, it was thought to use land routes for smuggling in arms and not the Beirut port.

An Israeli official said, however, that the area of the port where the blast occurred was full of Hezbollah facilities, according to an Israeli intelligence assessment, although Israel had no conclusive evidence linking Hezbollah to the cache of ammonium nitrate.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, said on Friday that the cause of the blast had not been determined, but cited the “possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act.”

President Trump raised the prospect last week that the blast had been caused by an attack, but multiple defense officials subsequently refuted the assertion.

Lebanese citizens enraged by the blast staged huge protests and demanded an international investigation, an idea that Mr. Aoun dismissed. He called an international investigation “a waste of time.”

Mr. Nasrallah appeared to back the president, demanding that the Lebanese Army conduct the investigation.

Analysts said that Lebanese officials might be blocking an international investigation to hide larger problems at the port, which is controlled by several political parties, including Hezbollah.

“Why the Lebanese government may not want an international investigation is because perhaps they don’t want to expose the extent of their incompetence and corruption,” said Brian Katz, a former Middle East military and terrorism analyst for the C.I.A., who left his post last year. “Each party has a share of the port and uses it to smuggle all sorts of contraband, like weapons, automobiles and cash.”

The United States Embassy notes that many Lebanese do not support an investigation by their own government because of their lack of faith in the system.

The government “would essentially be investigating themselves,” the cable concluded.

Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

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