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The MV Rhosus arrived at the port in 2013 carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate

Lebanon’s government has blamed the huge blast that devastated parts of Beirut on the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s port.

People have expressed anger and disbelief that such a large quantity of potentially explosive material was kept inside a warehouse without any safety measures for more than six years, so close to the centre of the city.

The government has not named the source of the ammonium nitrate, but the same amount of the chemical arrived in Beirut in November 2013 on a Moldovan-flagged cargo ship, the MV Rhosus.

1596830361 577 Beirut explosion How ships deadly cargo ended up at port

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Media caption“Now I’m shaking, all the way from up to down”

The Russian-owned vessel set sail that September from Batumi, Georgia, heading to Beira, Mozambique.

It was carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which typically comes in the form of small pellets that are widely used as agricultural fertiliser but can also be mixed with fuel oil to make explosives for the mining and construction industries.

While sailing through the eastern Mediterranean the Rhosus suffered “technical problems” and was forced to dock at Beirut’s port, according to a 2015 report for industry newsletter Shippingarrested.com that was written by Lebanese lawyers who represented the crew.

The Rhosus was inspected by port officials and “forbidden from sailing”, the lawyers said. Most of the crew were repatriated, except for the Russian captain, Boris Prokoshev, and three others, who were reportedly Ukrainians.

Mr Prokoshev told the BBC on Friday that the Rhosus only stopped off in Beirut because its owner had money trouble. The captain said he was told the ship needed to collect an additional cargo of heavy machinery, to fund passage through the Suez Canal.

However, the machinery proved too heavy to load, and when the ship’s owner did not pay the port fees and fine, the Lebanese authorities impounded it, along with the ammonium nitrate, he added.

More on the explosion in Beirut

Shortly afterwards, the Rhosus was “abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo”, according to the lawyers. It was also subject to legal claims from creditors.

Meanwhile, the crew still confined to the vessel were running out of food and supplies. The lawyers said they applied to the Judge of Urgent Matters in Beirut for an order authorising them to return home, emphasising “the danger the crew was facing given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo” in the ship’s holds.

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Boris Prokoshev (R), captain of the MV Rhosus, and boatswain Boris Musinchak stand near a hold loaded with sacks of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port in summer 2014

The judge eventually agreed to allow the crew to disembark and in 2014 the port authorities transferred the ammonium nitrate into “Warehouse 12”, next to the grain silos. The lawyers said the cargo was “awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal”.

Mr Prokoshev said authorities in Beirut knew how dangerous the vessel’s cargo was and should not have stored it at the port.

“They should have paid the ship owner to take the ship away. A couple of hundred thousand dollars just to remove it and not have that headache there, in the port. But they wouldn’t release it. Is that sensible?”

“I understand – they wanted the money. But if they’d have known there would be an explosion like that, they wouldn’t have done it.”

The port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, and the director general of Lebanese Customs, Badri Daher, both said on Wednesday that they and other officials repeatedly warned the judiciary about the danger posed by the stored ammonium nitrate and the need to remove it.

Documents circulated online appeared to show that customs officials sent letters to a Judge of Urgent Matters in Beirut seeking guidance on how to sell or dispose of it at least six times from 2014 to 2017.

1596830361 818 Beirut explosion How ships deadly cargo ended up at port

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Mr Koraytem told local channel OTV that State Security also sent warning letters.

Public Works Minister Michel Najjar, who took office at the start of this year, told Al Jazeera that he only learned about the presence of the ammonium nitrate in late July and that he spoke to Mr Koraytem about the matter on Monday.

A fire appears to have triggered the detonation of the ammonium nitrate the next day. The blast killed at least 137 people and injured about 5,000 others, while dozens are still missing.

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Port officials said they requested the removal of the ammonium nitrate before the explosion

President Michel Aoun said the failure to deal with the Rhosus’ cargo was “unacceptable” and promised to “hold those responsible and those who were negligent accountable, and serve them the most severe punishment”.

The government has ordered officials involved in storing or guarding the ammonium nitrate to be put under house arrest pending an investigation.

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Kim Jong-un ‘apologises for killing of South Korean official’

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Mr Kim said the incident should never have happened

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has issued a rare personal apology for the killing of a South Korean official, Seoul says.

Mr Kim reportedly told his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in that the “disgraceful affair” should not have happened.

South Korea has said the 47-year-old man was found by troops floating in the North’s waters.

He was then shot dead and his body was set alight, according to Seoul.

The killing – the first of a South Korean citizen by North Korean forces for a decade – has caused outrage in the South.

The border between the Koreas is tightly policed, and the North is thought to have a “shoot-to-kill” policy in place to prevent coronavirus from entering the country.

What did Kim say in his apology?

The apology came in the form of a letter sent to President Moon which acknowledged that the incident should not have happened, according to South Korea’s Blue House.

Mr Kim called it a “disgraceful affair” and said he felt “very sorry” for “disappointing” Mr Moon and the South Korean people, the Blue House said. It is the North’s first official comment on the incident.

The North also gave the South the results of its investigation – it said more than 10 shots were fired at the man, who had entered North Korean waters and then failed to reveal his identity and tried to flee, South Korea’s director of national security Suh Hoon said.

However the North insisted that it had not burned the man’s body but rather the “floating material” that was carrying him.

“The troops could not locate the unidentified trespasser during a search after firing the shots, and burned the device under national emergency disease prevention measures,” Mr Suh told a briefing, referring to the letter.

What happened to the man?

The father-of-two, who worked for the fisheries department, was on his patrol boat about 10km (6 miles) from the border with the North, near the island of Yeonpyeong, when he disappeared on Monday, the South Korean defence ministry said.

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The South Korean island of Yeonpyeong sits near the border with the North

He had left his shoes behind on the boat. South Korean media said he had recently divorced and had financial problems.

A North Korean patrol boat found the man, who was wearing a life jacket, at sea at around 15:30 local time on Tuesday.

They put gas masks on and questioned him from a distance before “orders from [a] superior authority” came in that the man be killed. He was shot dead in the water.

South Korea says North Korean troops then burned the corpse at sea.

What has the reaction been in the South?

President Moon Jae-in called the killing a “shocking” incident that could not be tolerated. He urged the North to take “responsible” measures over the attack.

The country’s National Security Council said the North could “not justify shooting and burning the corpse of our unarmed citizen who showed no sign of resistance”.

Officials said they had done a “thorough analysis of diverse intelligence”, but it was not clear how exactly they had gathered the information.

The military hotline between North and South was cut in June, and the inter-Korean liaison office, which was built to help both sides communicate, was destroyed by North Korea. But South Korean military is known to intercept the North’s radio communications, AFP news agency reports.

What is the background?

Mr Kim’s apology comes at a time when relations between the North and South are at a low point and there is a stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington over the North’s nuclear programme.

South Korea has in the past demanded apologies from the North but these have rarely been forthcoming. The North has refused to apologise for the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, in which 46 sailors died, and denies responsibility. It also refused to apologise for shelling a South Korean island the same year, killing two soldiers and two construction workers.

North Korea may be taking extra-tough measures to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country because it is thought to be preparing for a huge military parade on 10 October to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Pyongyang closed its border with China in January to try to prevent the spread Covid-19. In July, North Korean state media said the country had raised its state of emergency to the maximum level.

Last month, the commander of the US military’s forces in South Korea, Robert Abrams, said the North had introduced a new “buffer zone” of one to two kilometres on the Chinese border, and that the country had special operation forces in place with orders to “shoot-to-kill” anyone coming across the border.

In the past, North Korea has also returned people who have wandered into their territory. In 2017, state news agency KCNA said officials would repatriate a South Korean fishing boat which “illegally” crossed the border, in what was seen as a rare humanitarian move.

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Mongolia’s most eligible eagle hunter

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(CNN) — “Look over there. See that man coming this way?” asks Timur. “He’s so good looking.”

Galloping towards us on a stout Mongolian steed is the nomad’s version of Brad Pitt returning home in “Legends of the Fall.” Bundled inside a pinto jacket above richly embroidered trousers, he certainly catches the eye. A fox fur hat warms his head, and perched calmly on his right forearm is a golden eagle that’s not merely a prop for a cheesy cologne advertisement.

“Look at his eyebrows and his cheekbones,” continues our Intrepid Travel guide. “And look at how big and strong he is. The girls go crazy over him.”

“It’s true,” says Timur’s wife, Bata, blushing slightly. “If I was to compare him with Timur just on looks, of course I would choose him.”

Upon closer inspection, the intruder’s weathered face betrays a life lived outdoors. But his jaw is certainly chiseled and his natural squint reminds me of a youthful Clint Eastwood as he gazes off into the distance.

Jenisbek Tserik, whose name means “steel warrior,” is a semi-nomadic Kazakh.

Mark Daffey

Arguably more impressive though is his stature, which I only begin to appreciate once he stands beside four other berkutchi, or eagle hunters, who have assembled in front of us for a scheduled photo shoot and interview session. He’s close to a head taller, with broad, square shoulders and muscular limbs that are further exaggerated by his bulky attire.

His name is Jenisbek Tserik, an appellation that means “steel warrior” — an apt description given his achievements. A master horseman, he’s also a serial winner of tug-of-war competitions pitting two combatants wrestling a goat carcass.

So adept is Jenisbek that he has been flown to Dubai to compete in exhibition events. For a semi-nomadic Kazakh living in Mongolia’s remote, westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii, any trip abroad would be like visiting another planet. Glitzy Dubai would be a whole different universe.

Aged 26, Jenisbek tells us he’s not married, then jokes that he has five girlfriends, including one in Dubai and another in Kazakhstan, from where 90% of Bayan-Ölgii’s resident population originates. I’m unsure if he’s serious, but from what Timur and Bata have told me about him, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

As well as the tug-of-war, Jenisbek is a champion archer, and he’s won numerous awards for eagle hunting in Bayan-Ölgii, where the centuries-old pastime is more widespread than anywhere else on the planet.

A proud history

Aged 26, Jenisbek says he's not married -- but has five girlfriends.

Aged 26, Jenisbek says he’s not married — but has five girlfriends.

Tuul & Bruno Morandi/The Image Bank RF/Getty Images

Eagle hunting can be traced back to a forgotten kingdom in Central Asia, where direct descendants of Genghis Khan settled by the Aral Sea until encroaching Russian Empire forces compelled them to flee to the lawless region of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia.

Then, when the Soviet Union and China established borders either side of them early in the 20th century, the Kazakhs became cut off from their homeland and were unable to return.

They continued to live as semi-nomadic herders in Western Mongolia, where traditional pastimes such as hunting with golden eagles continued, passing from one generation to the next. Since such practices were suppressed in Kazakhstan during Soviet rule, Bayan-Ölgii became the sport’s nucleus.

“For a Mongol, it’s pride thing to train racehorses. For Kazakhs, their pride is in training eagles to hunt,” explains Bata.

You can see it in the way they walk and how they behave. The five berkutchi know they’re being watched and they play up to it, puffing their chests out and stiffening their backs whenever a camera lens points their way. Brows furrow and lips purse like they’ve been modeling all their lives.

It’s a far cry from how life must have been in this part of the world before tourism impinged following the first Golden Eagle Festival, which was staged outside the provincial capital of Ölgii in 1999. But even now, foreigners are hardly stampeding to get here. When I quiz our local facilitator about numbers visiting the region this season, he replies that there are “many.”

“How many?” I ask.

“About 800.”

From October to March, eagle hunters head off into the mountains in pairs -- one to flush out their prey, the other to release the eagle from high along a ridgeline.

From October to March, eagle hunters head off into the mountains in pairs — one to flush out their prey, the other to release the eagle from high along a ridgeline.

Mark Daffey

Numbers peak around the timing of the festival in early October, and during the smaller scale Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival, held here in Sagsai two weeks earlier. In each, as many as 100 berkutchi test their skills in events where eagles are expected to catch fox skins being dragged behind horses or in races to scoop up a coin off the ground on horseback.

One flirtatious contest involves a whip-cracking woman chasing after a man who doesn’t always try overly hard to escape. I could imagine Jenisbek receiving a disproportionate share of lashings these past few years.

But it’s only once the tourists have gone that the eagle hunting season begins. From October to March, hunters head off into the mountains in pairs — one to flush out their prey, the other to release the eagle from high along a ridgeline.

Prize catches includes foxes and hares, whose luxuriant coats make the warmest hats, just like those crowning Jenisbek and his companions.

Hunts can last for days at a time, and training requires patience as the eagles become accustomed to their handlers and develop the required skills.

Has it caused couples to divorce, I ask Timur, when husbands spend more time with their birds than they do with their wife? He shrugs his shoulders.

When every unmarried woman in the valley is lining up for you, like they are for Jenisbek, who needs a wife?

Getting there: Though Mongolia is currently closed to tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of tour companies are now accepting bookings for for the 2021 Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, which takes place in early October.

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Pelosi urges voting to counter Trump on peaceful election transition

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that President Donald Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election could be cured at the ballot box.

“That the president of the United States would place in doubt the idea of the peaceful transfer of power, well it’s not a surprise,” Pelosi said. But a clear result from voters, she said, would be the “antidote” to any doubts raised by Trump in his comments. “I have confidence in the American people,” she said.

Pelosi’s remarks came as congressional Republicans declined to directly confront Trump’s comments but emphatically rejected the notion that the country would see anything but a peaceful transition of power should Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win the election. Trump, though, has spent months criticizing the integrity of the election rooted in baseless claims about foreign meddling with mail-in ballots and rampant voter fraud in Democrat-led states.

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