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Ownership of Chemicals that Exploded at Beirut Port Traces Back to Ukraine

A year after a massive shipment of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, an OCCRP investigation has settled one of the biggest lingering questions: who actually owned the cargo. A trail of documents reveals a decades-old chemical-trading network controlled by Ukrainians, hidden behind a veil of proxies and shell firms.

Key Findings

  • A Ukrainian businessman named Volodymyr Verbonol and partners were behind the company that owned the ammonium nitrate shipment.
  • The company was part of a sprawling, decades-old network involved in chemical trading since at least the 2000s.
  • The network disguised its operations behind at least half a dozen trade names and various strawmen and shell companies.
  • Offshore service providers in Cyprus and the United Kingdom facilitated the network’s operations.

In the year since a massive shipment of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut port and devastated Lebanon’s capital, one of the most basic questions has proven one of the hardest to answer: Who actually owned the cargo?

Just after the blast, reporters discovered that a dormant London-registered company called Savaro Ltd had chartered the 2,750-ton shipment in 2013, intending to send it from Georgia to an explosives factory in Mozambique.

Instead, the vessel carrying it, the MV Rhosus, was detained in Beirut over unpaid debts and technical defects. The cargo sat in a warehouse until August 4, 2020, when it detonated in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, killing over 200 people and displacing more than 300,000.

But figuring out just who owns Savaro has turned out to be a challenge. The company’s true shareholders are hidden behind offshore nominee directors and shareholders.

A Ukrainian businessman, Volodymyr Verbonol, who owned a company of the same name in the city of Dnipro, came under initial scrutiny. But after denying he had any connection to the Beirut shipment, he mostly escaped further attention.

An investigation by OCCRP and its partners has now proven that Verbonol was indeed behind Savaro. Following a trail of documents, journalists also found that the company was part of a larger business network that traded in technical-grade ammonium nitrate of the sort used to make explosives.

Based in Dnipro, Ukraine, the web of companies is owned and operated by a network of businesspeople including Verbonol and his father-in-law, nationally prominent construction magnate Mykola Aliseyenko. But it has disguised its operations behind at least half a dozen trade names and various strawmen and shell companies spanning England, Scotland, the Caribbean, Ukraine, the South Pacific, and the United States.

The network has sold fertilizers and chemicals to African countries since at least the 2000s. Reporters also found that the network sent at least three other shipments of ammonium nitrate to the Rhosus’ intended destination, Mozambique, in 2013. At least one Ukrainian company in the network continues to market goods online, including fertilizers. Two offshore service providers that work with clients in former Soviet republics — the Cyprus-based Interstatus and the U.K.-based Alpha and Omega group of formation agents — facilitated the network’s operations for years.

These findings paint the fullest picture yet of the people and entities behind the ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut. The matter may soon have legal implications, too. Last month, lawyers sued Savaro in the U.K. on behalf of the Beirut Bar Association and blast victims, arguing the company bore significant responsibility for the disaster.

The complex network behind the cargo also speaks to the sophisticated methods routinely deployed in international shipping and trade to obscure ownership, in what experts say is often a deliberate attempt to evade liability and facilitate criminal or other underhanded business practices.

People are seen with suitcases leaving Beirut after the explosion


People leaving Beirut after a catastrophic explosion that destroyed much of the city’s northern neighbourhoods.

Camille Abousleiman, the lead lawyer in the London case against Savaro, said the company shared responsibility for the explosion because it was the legal owner of the cargo and failed to take proper measures to retrieve the dangerous materials. He said he hoped the case against the company would be the first step in holding all those responsible for the disaster to account.

“Savaro and the people that control it have a responsibility to ensure that their cargo is stored properly and is not a risk to people,” Mark Taylor, Senior Analyst at The Docket, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, told OCCRP.

“It’s not okay, under the international human rights regime, to just dump dangerous chemicals in a warehouse and walk away.”

– Mark Taylor
Senior Analyst, The Docket

“It’s not okay, under the international human rights regime, to just dump dangerous chemicals in a warehouse and walk away.”

In a statement sent to reporters, the Ukrainian companies denied any involvement in the Rhosus shipment, and laid the blame for the Beirut blast on Lebanese authorities.

“The entire time, the line of business of Atlantis Corporation, Savaro and Dniprosoft has been IT: the production of software and Internet marketing,” the statement said, referring to the names of three Ukrainian companies in the network.

Online advertising for other goods, such as fertilizers, was done on behalf of their clients and was “posted by employees, and often interns, who may not have fully understood that our company was acting on behalf of the manufacturers,” they said.

Savaro’s British lawyer, Richard Slade, did not respond to a request for comment.

🔗A Lack of Accountability

The August 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion pulverized import-dependent Lebanon’s main port, inflicted up to $8.1 billion of material and economic damage on its capital city, and helped tip a country already struggling due to corruption and mismanagement into an outright crisis.

Over a year later, Lebanon is grappling with hyperinflation, medicine shortages, queues for fuel, and frequent electricity blackouts. A wave of Lebanese are now leaving the country to find a better life abroad.

Many Lebanese believe the country’s political elite bear ultimate responsibility for the disaster, after evidence emerged that government officials were aware of the risks posed by the ammonium nitrate, but did not remove it.

So far only low and mid-ranking port and customs officials have been charged. A local judge tried to charge senior officials with negligence, including Prime Minister Hassan Diab, but the judge was removed in February after pushback from the country’s political establishment. A new judge has been appointed and is continuing his inquiries.

Lebanese attorney and human rights activist Ziyad Baroud, a former Minister of Interior and Municipalities, told OCCRP that he never expected swift legal decisions to be made given the magnitude of the case.

More than a year after the explosion, “we are still talking about legal formalities and immunity without getting into the actual trial,” he said.

Sea Shells

The Rhosus was chartered and its cargo was purchased by two companies from the Savaro network: the London-registered Savaro Ltd, and another called Agroblend Exports (BVI) Ltd in the British Virgin Islands.

Documents Show How Savaro and Agroblend Were Linked to Beirut Cargo

Left: The July 2013 purchase contract for the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate on board the MV Rhosus between Savaro Ltd UK and the Georgian fertilizer supplier Rustavi Azot. Right: A final chartering document, known as a “clean recap,” between a Savaro-linked company, Agroblend Exports (BVI) Ltd, and the operators of the MV Rhosus.