Beirut, Lebanon – Three Syrian businessmen with close ties to the Syrian government have been linked to the company that bought the explosive material that entered the port of Beirut in 2013 and fueled a massive explosion in August that devastated parts of the Lebanese capital.
Syrian businessmen George Haswani and brothers Imad and Mudalal Khuri are also Russian citizens, according to the UK government’s website Companies House and the media.
Open-source information on the UK website – first released by Lebanese documentary maker Firas Hatoum on Tuesday on local news channel Al Jadeed – shows the companies formerly run by Haswani and Imad Khuri have the same addresses than Savaro Limited, the company that purchased 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate in July 2013, four months before it entered the Port of Beirut.
Savaro too lists as a “secretary”, or member of the board responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the company, a company which provided the same service to a company run by Imad Khuri – establishing an additional link between the men of business and the company that bought ammonium nitrate.
The three men have been sanctioned by the United States for allegedly aiding and providing services to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They could not be contacted for comment.
In November 2015 declaration announcing sanctions against Mudalal Khuri, the US Treasury said it had, among other things, mediated for al-Assad’s government “on an attempted purchase of ammonium nitrate in late 2013” – the same period when ammonium nitrate entered Beirut.
Imad Khuri was sanctioned in July 2016 for supporting his brother’s activities.
The new information raises the question of whether the Syrian government had sought to procure the powerful explosives for use in Syria at the height of the war in the country.
Al-Assad’s government had been accused by the International Explosive Weapons Network of using ammonium nitrate in the production of raw weapons such as so-called barrel bombs during the same period.
Several reports have suggested that large quantities of the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate did not explode after being stored in a port hangar in 2014 and may have been removed earlier, although some experts said the size of the explosion was in accordance with the total quantity. present.
The August 4 explosion killed at least 200 people, injured more than 600 and destroyed large swathes of Beirut.
The bomb-shell company
The ammonium nitrate was purchased from the Georgian chemical plant Rustavi Azot by Savaro Limited on July 10, 2013, under a sales contract seen by Al Jazeera.
The official destination of the materials was an explosives factory in Mozambique, Fabrica de Explosivos de Moçambique (FEM). An EMF representative previously told Reuters news agency that they ordered the documents through Savaro – and therefore claimed to never possess them.
Hatoum, the documentary maker, said using this intermediary between buyer and seller alone raised red flags.
“Why do you need to use a shell company to buy this? This means that the seller and the buyer can claim to have no liability – and this hides the identity of the real owners, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Savaro, registered as a UK chemicals trading company, has the characteristics of a shell company – with few or no real employees and few real companies.
Marina Psyllou, the current registered director of the company, did not respond to a request for comment. She is registered as a director of at least eight active offshore companies, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Former company director Greta Bieliene, who resigned on October 1, 2020, could not be reached for comment.
Psyllou on Tuesday filed a request to dissolve Savaro, pending approval from UK authorities.
The Syrian Connection
Over the past decade, Savaro has linked up with at least three UK-based addresses, one of which is said to have happened to be a “Victorian terraced house”.
The first, seen on the Ammonium Nitrate Purchase Agreement, is 10 Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3BQ.
Another telltale sign that Savaro is a shell company is that the same address has been used by dozens of other companies as well, including Hesco Engineering and Construction.
From its incorporation on August 4, 2005 until October 20, 2014, Hesco was led by Haswani, the Syrian businessman sanctioned by the United States in 2015 for allegedly facilitating the purchase of oil from ISIL ( ISIS) for the Syrian government.
Hesco was disbanded on November 17, 2020 – three and a half months after the Beirut port explosion. The company could not be reached for comment on a phone number for its Damascus office.
Savaro’s second address – revealed during a change of address in 2011 – is 13 John Prince’s Street, 2nd Floor, London, W1G 0JR. This is the same address used by IK Petroleum Industrial Company Limited, a company run by Imad Khuri from its incorporation on August 6, 2013 until his resignation on July 18, 2016.
This address is also used by Omega Direct Limited – a company which the United States-based Counter Extremism Project said was affiliated with Haswani’s company, Hesco, in a March 2015 letter.
IK Petroleum lists another UK based company, Interstatus Limited, as “secretary”. Interstatus is also listed as secretary at Savaro, and Savaro’s third UK public address is the same as Interstatus: 14 Cotton’s Gardens, London, E2 8DN.
The registered director of Interstatus is Marina Pysyllou – the same woman registered as the director of Savaro.
In short, the company that bought the ammonium nitrate, Savaro, was registered at three separate addresses between 2011 and today, two of which are the same as companies run by businessmen linked to the Syrian government; the third shared with a company who is a secretary for one of the business men’s companies. One of these businessmen was publicly accused by the United States of seeking to procure ammonium nitrate for the government during the same period that Savaro bought the ammonium nitrate.
Jodi Vittori, a non-resident researcher in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the links between the companies run by businessmen close to the Syrian government and ammonium nitrate were “concerning And “should be priority to review”.
“The corporate links of known elements of the pro-Syrian regime with this incredibly dubious chain of custody of ammonium nitrate are very troubling and require further investigation,” said Vittori, an expert on corruption links, state fragility and illicit financing.
The man charged with investigating the explosion in Lebanon, Fadi Sawan, has so far focused largely on the local angle, accusing around 30 people of criminal negligence for failing to remove the dangerous cargo from the port for almost seven years. Among the accused are outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers.
But Hatoum said Sawan also had to explain why the ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in the first place – and who shipped it there.
“If a car or a gun is used in a crime, the police will of course check directly who it belongs to. Is it possible that almost six months after the explosion, we still don’t know who owns the ammonium nitrate? »Said Hatoum.
“There is only one of the two answers: laziness and incompetence, or the presence of red lines.”