A 12 months after an enormous cargo of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, an OCCRP investigation has settled one of the most important lingering questions: who really owned the cargo. A path of paperwork reveals a decades-old chemical-trading community managed by Ukrainians, hidden behind a veil of proxies and shell corporations.
- A Ukrainian businessman named Volodymyr Verbonol and companions had been behind the corporate that owned the ammonium nitrate cargo.
- The firm was half of a sprawling, decades-old community concerned in chemical buying and selling since at least the 2000s.
- The community disguised its operations behind at least half a dozen commerce names and varied strawmen and shell firms.
- Offshore service suppliers in Cyprus and the United Kingdom facilitated the community’s operations.
In the 12 months since an enormous cargo of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut port and devastated Lebanon’s capital, one of essentially the most primary questions has confirmed one of the toughest to reply: Who really owned the cargo?
Just after the blast, reporters found that a dormant London-registered firm known as Savaro Ltd had chartered the two,750-ton cargo in 2013, intending to ship it from Georgia to an explosives manufacturing unit in Mozambique.
Instead, the vessel carrying it, the MV Rhosus, was detained in Beirut over unpaid money owed and technical defects. The cargo sat in a warehouse till August 4, 2020, when it detonated in a single of the most important non-nuclear blasts in historical past, killing over 200 individuals and displacing greater than 300,000.
But determining simply who owns Savaro has turned out to be a problem. The firm’s true shareholders are hidden behind offshore nominee administrators and shareholders.
A Ukrainian businessman, Volodymyr Verbonol, who owned an organization of the identical title within the metropolis of Dnipro, got here underneath preliminary scrutiny. But after denying he had any connection to the Beirut cargo, he largely escaped additional consideration.
An investigation by OCCRP and its companions has now confirmed that Verbonol was certainly behind Savaro. Following a path of paperwork, journalists additionally discovered that the corporate was half of a bigger enterprise community that traded in technical-grade ammonium nitrate of the kind used to make explosives.
Based in Dnipro, Ukraine, the net of firms is owned and operated by a community of businesspeople together with Verbonol and his father-in-law, nationally distinguished building magnate Mykola Aliseyenko. But it has disguised its operations behind at least half a dozen commerce names and varied strawmen and shell firms spanning England, Scotland, the Caribbean, Ukraine, the South Pacific, and the United States.
The community has bought fertilizers and chemical substances to African international locations since at least the 2000s. Reporters additionally discovered that the community despatched at least three different shipments of ammonium nitrate to the Rhosus’ supposed vacation spot, Mozambique, in 2013. At least one Ukrainian firm within the community continues to market items on-line, together with fertilizers. Two offshore service suppliers that work with purchasers in former Soviet republics — the Cyprus-based Interstatus and the U.Ok.-based Alpha and Omega group of formation brokers — facilitated the community’s operations for years.
These findings paint the fullest image but of the individuals and entities behind the ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut. The matter might quickly have authorized implications, too. Last month, attorneys sued Savaro within the U.Ok. on behalf of the Beirut Bar Association and blast victims, arguing the corporate bore vital accountability for the catastrophe.
The complicated community behind the cargo additionally speaks to the delicate strategies routinely deployed in worldwide transport and commerce to obscure possession, in what specialists say is commonly a deliberate try to evade legal responsibility and facilitate prison or different underhanded enterprise practices.
People leaving Beirut after a catastrophic explosion that destroyed a lot of town’s northern neighbourhoods.
Camille Abousleiman, the lead lawyer within the London case towards Savaro, stated the corporate shared accountability for the explosion as a result of it was the authorized proprietor of the cargo and failed to take correct measures to retrieve the harmful supplies. He stated he hoped the case towards the corporate could be step one in holding all these liable for the catastrophe to account.
“Savaro and the individuals that management it have a accountability to guarantee that their cargo is saved correctly and isn’t a danger to individuals,” Mark Taylor, Senior Analyst at The Docket, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, informed OCCRP.
“It’s not okay, underneath the worldwide human rights regime, to simply dump harmful chemical substances in a warehouse and stroll away.”
– Mark Taylor
Senior Analyst, The Docket
“It’s not okay, underneath the worldwide human rights regime, to simply dump harmful chemical substances in a warehouse and stroll away.”
In a press release despatched to reporters, the Ukrainian firms denied any involvement within the Rhosus cargo, and laid the blame for the Beirut blast on Lebanese authorities.
“The whole time, the road of enterprise of Atlantis Corporation, Savaro and Dniprosoft has been IT: the manufacturing of software program and Internet advertising and marketing,” the assertion stated, referring to the names of three Ukrainian firms within the community.
Online promoting for different items, similar to fertilizers, was achieved on behalf of their purchasers and was “posted by staff, and sometimes interns, who might not have absolutely understood that our firm was appearing on behalf of the producers,” they stated.
Savaro’s British lawyer, Richard Slade, didn’t reply to a request for remark.
🔗A Lack of Accountability
The August 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion pulverized import-dependent Lebanon’s predominant port, inflicted up to $8.1 billion of materials and financial harm on its capital metropolis, and helped tip a rustic already struggling due to corruption and mismanagement into an outright disaster.
Over a 12 months later, Lebanon is grappling with hyperinflation, drugs shortages, queues for gasoline, and frequent electrical energy blackouts. A wave of Lebanese at the moment are leaving the nation to discover a higher life overseas.
Many Lebanese imagine the nation’s political elite bear final accountability for the catastrophe, after proof emerged that authorities officers had been conscious of the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate, however didn’t take away it.
So far solely low and mid-ranking port and customs officers have been charged. A neighborhood choose tried to cost senior officers with negligence, together with Prime Minister Hassan Diab, however the choose was eliminated in February after pushback from the nation’s political institution. A brand new choose has been appointed and is constant his inquiries.
Lebanese lawyer and human rights activist Ziyad Baroud, a former Minister of Interior and Municipalities, informed OCCRP that he by no means anticipated swift authorized choices to be made given the magnitude of the case.
More than a 12 months after the explosion, “we’re nonetheless speaking about authorized formalities and immunity with out stepping into the precise trial,” he stated.
The Rhosus was chartered and its cargo was bought by two firms from the Savaro community: the London-registered Savaro Ltd, and one other known as Agroblend Exports (BVI) Ltd within the British Virgin Islands.
On paper, neither firm was tied to anybody in Ukraine. Agroblend’s homeowners and administrators are hidden behind the British Virgin Islands’ strict secrecy. Savaro’s true possession was obscured by nominee companies offered by Interstatus, the Cyprus-based company companies supplier.
Interstatus offered nominee companies for at least 4 firms bearing the Savaro title. One, a Scottish restricted partnership that declared itself a fertilizer dealer, had paperwork filed collectively by subsidiaries of Interstatus and Alpha and Omega group, a U.Ok.-based community of company service suppliers that has been flagged for working for sanctioned individuals and alleged money launderers.
Transparency International U.Ok. despatched a report on Alpha and Omega to U.Ok. income authorities final 12 months urging an investigation, however have to this point acquired no official response, the group’s investigations lead Ben Cowdock informed OCCRP.
“In phrases of the quantity of firms that have gone on to be utilized in suspicious exercise, [Alpha and Omega are] positively one of essentially the most prolific,” Cowdock stated.
Interstatus is at present underneath investigation by the Cypriot monetary regulator, CySEC, outgoing chairwoman Demetra Kalogerou informed OCCRP.
Interstatus’ proprietor, Marina Psyllou, informed OCCRP that her firm had performed full know-your-customer checks on all purchasers, however that she couldn’t share the names of the true homeowners with third events.
The U.Ok. firm Savaro Ltd “to the perfect of our information and perception was all the time dormant and it had all the time been introduced to us as such by our consumer,” she stated.
The head of Alpha and Omega, Aleksej Strukov, declined to touch upon their purchasers however stated his firm works with Interstatus, offering addresses and mail forwarding companies.
🔗Savaro and Syria Suspicions
Journalists and investigators have probed the chance that the ammonium nitrate cargo was by no means meant to find yourself in Mozambique, however as a substitute was deserted in Beirut on goal to be smuggled into Syria and utilized in explosives.
The idea was partly fueled by previous revelations by OCCRP, together with that the Mozambican group that ordered the ammonium nitrate had been investigated for arms trafficking.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly concluded that solely 20 % of the Rhosus’ load of ammonium nitrate exploded, elevating questions on what occurred to the opposite 80 % — and whether or not it might have been pilfered from the Lebanese port.
The Cypriot proprietor of the ship was additionally found to be in debt to FBME, a Lebanese-owned financial institution in Cyprus and Tanzania that was compelled to halt operations after the U.S. Treasury declared it a financial institution of “main cash laundering concern.” Bank purchasers have included associates of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah and an organization allegedly linked to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program.
Savaro’s opaque possession has added additional questions. A report for Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV this 12 months by journalist Feras Hatoum, who labored with OCCRP on this story, discovered that Interstatus and the Alpha and Omega group additionally acted as nominees for corporations belonging to Syrian regime-aligned tycoon George Haswani and Syrian-Russian businessman Imad Khouri, whose brother Mudalal Khouri is reportedly a intermediary between the Syrian and Russian regimes.
At least one Haswani firm, Hesco Engineering and Construction, shared addresses within the U.Ok. with Savaro Ltd. Both firms had been moved between totally different addresses twice with paperwork filed on the identical days in 2008 and 2011.
Both Haswani and the Khouri brothers had been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mudalal Khuri was additionally designated for serving to in an try to procure ammonium nitrate for Assad’s authorities in 2013 — the identical 12 months the Rhosus arrived in Beirut.
According to a 2014 report by Ernst & Young, the Khouri brothers typically referred purchasers to FBME. Hesco was additionally a buyer of FBME.
Haswani has denied any connection to the Rhosus cargo.
An International Trail
Reporters had been ready to tie Savaro Ltd. and Agroblend Exports (BVI) Ltd. to Verbonol’s community thanks to clues present in a sequence of emails despatched by an organization consultant after the Rhosus was detained in Beirut.
In December 2013, an Agroblend consultant calling himself Curtis Igleheart contacted a Lebanese businessman to assist him retrieve the ship’s cargo, which he recognized as “harmful.”
Igleheart complained that his firm was blindsided when the ship’s operator, Teto Shipping, made unannounced stops in Greece and Beirut, the place the Rhosus was ultimately impounded.
Teto Shipping stated it was too broke to proceed to Mozambique’s Beira port though it had been paid the complete value of the transport, practically $375,000, Igleheart wrote. He accused the operator of shaking down his firm for more cash.
“Presently the vessel continues to be [in] Beirut and vessel homeowners say they couldn’t load cargo in Beirut and so they don’t have cash to go for Beira. They began blackmailing us to pay further 180.000USD (in any other case we’ll by no means see our cargo).”
Nearly a 12 months later, Igleheart reached out once more to the identical businessman. But now, as a substitute of representing Agroblend, his emails had been despatched from a savaro.com account.
Emails from Agroblend and Savaro Domains
Emails despatched in 2013 and 2014 by an worker of Savaro and Agroblend going by the title Curtis Igleheart.
Although the area’s possession was hidden by on-line anonymization companies, reporters discovered that savaro.com shared an electronic mail server with the web site of the Ukrainian department of Savaro. It additionally shared an I.P. deal with utilized by the Ukraine department of Savaro, in addition to with different websites linked to offshore firms within the community that marketed fertilizers and different chemical substances in Latvia and the United States.
Igleheart additionally performed a task in Savaro’s efforts to rent a Lebanese lawyer, Joseph Kareh, to examine the ammonium nitrate in 2015. After that, the corporate seems to have stopped making an attempt to recuperate its cargo. Savaro paid Kareh from an account in its title at the Cyprus department of Ukrainian-owned Privatbank.
Reporters had been unable to establish an worker named Igleheart in firm information or attain a U.Ok. quantity he beforehand used.
A Fertile Market
Volodymyr Verbonol was born in 1959 and got here up by way of the enterprise and political circles of Dnipro, an industrial metropolis in central Ukraine.
In the Nineteen Nineties, he labored as an assistant for distinguished Ukrainian commerce union chief Mykhailo Volynets and Denys Dzenzersky, a former member of parliament who he partnered with in enterprise within the Nineteen Nineties, and who’s now needed by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau.
In 2001, Verbonol arrange a enterprise known as Atlantis Corporation, which marketed fertilizers and different merchandise, in accordance to fragments of a now-deleted webpage retrieved by reporters. Verbonol was the corporate’s public face.
With companions together with the development magnate Aliseyenko, Verbonol quickly established a number of firms advertising and marketing items and companies together with fertilizers, metallurgical gear, software program, and internet design. One of them was the Ukrainian department of Savaro, established in 2009.
Linked to these Ukrainian firms was an internet of offshore shell firms, most of which had been run by Interstatus, firm registry paperwork present. They included firms underneath the Savaro title in Scotland, England, and the British Virgin Islands, in addition to different associated holding firms within the Marshall Islands and the United States.
New Ammonium Nitrate Shipments Revealed
Verbonol’s Ukraine-based Atlantis Corporation shut down in 2011 after declaring chapter, however different firms within the community saved working.
The similar 12 months, internet directors contacted the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital archive which backs up previous web sites by way of the Wayback Machine, and requested them to take away information of two of its predominant web sites, savaro.com and atlantis.ua, Wayback Machine director Mark Graham informed OCCRP.
Reporters had been ready to recuperate fragments of Atlantis Corporation’s prior web site that had been crawled by a 3rd celebration website, the interpretation service Linguee. They present that the corporate marketed fertilizers and publicly declared Verbonol as its president. A snapshot of savaro.com nonetheless accessible on-line exhibits an inventory of agricultural chemical substances , together with ammonium nitrate.
A screenshot of an archived model of one of Atlantis Corporation’s web sites, from 2004, exhibits the corporate advertising and marketing fertilizer.
Verbonol and his companions’ Ukrainian firms seem to have stopped promoting fertilizer on-line underneath their very own names after this level. Savaro in Ukraine started to current itself as a vendor of equipment and gear, and, later, a software program and internet growth companies supplier. However, the web sites linked to the offshore construction continued to market chemical substances.
A former Savaro community worker, who labored for the Ukrainian firms across the time of the Rhosus cargo, informed OCCRP he noticed little proof they had been doing IT work, and that fertilizer gross sales remained the principle half of their enterprise.
“I hardly bear in mind anybody who might be related to software program. There had been no IT guys or software program builders,” stated the previous worker, who requested not to be named out of concern for his security.
Reporters additionally discovered that, the identical 12 months because the Rhosus cargo, Savaro additionally despatched over 17,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate in three separate shipments to Beira, Mozambique. The Rhosus had additionally been destined for Beira earlier than being detained at Beirut’s port.
The similar Mozambican firm that was meant to obtain the Rhosus cargo, Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, informed OCCRP that it had bought two different shipments from Savaro in 2013, amounting to practically 11,000 metric tons of technical grade ammonium nitrate, which is often used to make explosives.
Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique spokesman Antonio Cunha Vaz stated that so far as he knew, Savaro was a Ukrainian firm whose boss was recognized to him merely as “Mr. Volodymir.”
Savaro’s sister firm, Agroblend, additionally despatched a 3rd cargo of 6,500 tons of ammonium nitrate from Ukraine and Croatia to Beira, which arrived in August 2013, in accordance to MUR Shipping, the Netherlands-based operator of the ship that carried it.
It is unclear who bought this third cargo. Cunha Vaz stated his firm was not the shopper.
Elizabeth Fitt/Alamy Live News
A purple plume rises from Beirut’s port following final 12 months’s explosion.
With authorized motion looming in London, the homeowners of Savaro seem to be shifting to cowl their tracks.
On August 23, the corporate’s possession was transferred to a Ukrainian lawyer named Volodymyr Hliadchenko. Ukrainian information present that Hliadchenko is the obvious nominee proprietor of at least a dozen native firms, together with at least one at the identical deal with the place the Ukraine department of Savaro is situated.
Reached by cellphone, Hliadchenko stated he had been trying to purchase a London firm and had chosen Savaro at the suggestion of different Ukrainian attorneys. He stated the corporate was not to blame for the Beirut catastrophe.
The community additionally might have tried to conceal the actual fact that they had been persevering with to promote chemical substances.
In July, reporters found a website advertising fertilizer and other materials underneath the title Dniprometal, the identical title as an organization arrange in July 2011 by Verbonol and Olha Aliseyenko — whose patronym, Mykolaivna, signifies she could also be Mykola Aliseyenko’s daughter.
At the time, the positioning listed a Dnipro workplace deal with utilized by the corporate and different Savaro community corporations. It additionally shared an I.P. deal with with a number of linked firms.
In their response to OCCRP, Verbonol and companions stated Dniprometal had by no means performed any enterprise, together with buying and selling fertilizers.
Shortly after, reporters discovered that the Dnipro workplace deal with utilized by Savaro firms had been faraway from the web site and changed with the official registry quantity and deal with of a separate firm, which was additionally known as Dniprometal however was owned by totally different individuals and had shut down over a decade in the past.
Reporters despatched a follow-up electronic mail to Verbonol and companions, asking them if they’d modified the web site so as to deceive reporters or plaintiffs within the London lawsuit.
They didn’t reply.
Graham Stack (OCCRP), Rana Sabbagh (OCCRP), Aleksey Kovalev (Meduza), Nino Bakradze (ifact.ge), and Sarunas Cerniauskas (OCCRP) contributed reporting.