How Ukrainians blew up Beirut

The owners of the saltpeter that exploded in the port of Beirut were Ukrainian businessmen. And that's how they tried to cover their tracks.
For a whole year after the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the identity of the very cargo of ammonium nitrate that caused the disaster remained a mystery. The cargo arrived in the Lebanese capital on the Rhosus vessel under the Moldovan flag and with a Russian-Ukrainian crew in December 2013. In September 2020, a team of journalists from OCCRP conducted an investigation (in which Meduza was also involved) and found out that saltpeter at the Georgian factory Rustaviazot was bought by a company called Savaro Limited, registered in the UK, for sale to an explosives plant in Mozambique. However, it was not possible to establish its true owners at that time: a Ukrainian company with a similar name was discovered, but its owner, a Dnieper entrepreneur Vladimir Verbonol, denied any connection with the cargo of saltpeter. And for a while he managed to divert attention from himself.

A new investigation by OCCRP has shown that it is Vladimir Verbonol who is the ultimate owner of Savaro. The firm itself, in turn, is part of an international conglomerate of companies; it supplies ammonium nitrate of the type used to make explosives. The headquarters of this conglomerate is located in the city of Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), and it is run by a group of people led by Verbonol and his father-in-law, the construction magnate Nikolai Aliseenko, known throughout Ukraine. True, they are hiding behind a whole network of dummies and offshore companies registered in England, Scotland, the Caribbean and Pacific island states, Ukraine and the United States.

OCCRP reporters found that companies belonging to this group have been selling ammonium nitrate to African countries since the early 2000s; including investigators found at least three cases of its delivery to Mozambique, which was the end point of the unfinished route Rhosus. Legal support of the companies of this group is carried out by two firms specializing in servicing clients from the countries of the former USSR: the Cypriot Interstatus and the British Alpha and Omega Group.

In August 2021, a class action lawsuit was filed in a London court against Savaro on behalf of the Bar Association of Beirut and the victims of the port bombing. The plaintiffs believe that such a complex and intricate system of ownership was invented by the owners of Savaro Limited precisely in order to avoid liability for improper storage of dangerous goods.

The lawyers of the Ukrainian companies against which this lawsuit was filed, in response to a request from journalists, deny any connection with the nitrate cargo carried by Rhosus, and shift all responsibility for the explosion to the Lebanese authorities. This statement also says that Atlantis Corporation, Savaro and Dniprosoft, mentioned in the lawsuit, operate exclusively in the field of IT, software development and Internet marketing, and the fact that one of them still sells fertilizers on its website - this is a "mistake of one of the trainees."

From the documents examined by OCCRP journalists, it is known that the Rhosus dry cargo ship was chartered by Agroblend Exports, registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), to carry a cargo of ammonium nitrate purchased from the Georgian plant "Rustaviazot" by another company - Savaro Limited, registered in the UK ...

Formally, none of the two companies has anything to do with Ukraine. The owner of Agroblend Exports is an anonymous island offshore, and Savaro, with the help of Interstatus, appointed nominees - nominees as leaders. She provided such services for at least four companies, in the name of which there is Savaro. For example, one of them, registered in Scotland as a fertilizer trader, turned out to be associated with subsidiaries of Interstatus and Alpha and Omega Group, a British group of companies providing corporate services.

Alpha and Omega Group's clients - including individuals and companies under international sanctions - have been accused of money laundering on more than one occasion. And in relation to Interstatus in Cyprus is now being checked by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the director of the Cypriot financial regulator Demetra Kalogeru told OCCRP. Interstatus director Marina Psillou refused to disclose the names of the owners of Savaro Limited. The head of Alpha and Omega Group, Alexei Strukov, also refused to discuss the clients of his group of companies, but confirmed that he cooperates with Interstatus, providing their clients with legal address and mail forwarding services.

The journalists managed to connect Savaro Limited and Agroblend Exports with the Ukrainian network of companies of Vladimir Verbonol thanks to the e-mails they had at their disposal. In one of these letters, an Agroblend employee, who signed himself as Curtis Inglehart, in December 2013, after the arrest of Rhosus by the Lebanese authorities, turned to a Lebanese businessman for help. He asked to assist his company in gaining access to the seized cargo of saltpeter and complained that the operator of the vessel, Teto Shipping, is extorting more and more money for transportation costs.

A year later, the same person wrote to his interlocutor again - but from a different address on the savaro.com domain. The domain owner's data is hidden, but journalists learned that the associated IP address is also used by a Ukrainian company called Savaro, as well as the websites of a number of other offshore companies selling fertilizers.

Vladimir Verbonol was born in 1959 and was engaged in business in the Ukrainian city, which until 2016 was called Dnepropetrovsk. In the 1990s, he worked as a deputy to the well-known Ukrainian trade unionist Mikhail Volynts, and also collaborated with Denis Dzendzersky, a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada from the Batkivshchyna and People's Front parties. Dzendzersky is simultaneously wanted by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and under Russian sanctions.

In 2001, Vladimir Verbonol founded a company called Atlantis Corporation, which, as can be judged from the fragments of its website remaining in the Internet archives, was engaged in the sale of fertilizers. Together with his business partners, including construction tycoon Nikolai Aliseenko, Verbonol established several other companies that sold fertilizers, metallurgical equipment, software and web design services. One of such organizations was the Ukrainian Savaro, created in 2009. These firms conducted their business on the international market with the help of Interstatus, which registered several firms with identical names, where the word Savaro appeared, in England, Scotland and the Marshall Islands.

In 2011, Verbonol's Atlantis Corporation filed for bankruptcy and closed, but other firms that were part of the network continued to operate. However, they officially stopped selling fertilizers - and even succeeded in removing the archival copies of the savaro.com and atlantis.ua websites, which indicated their assortment, including ammonium nitrate. A former Savaro employee who worked for the Ukrainian company at the time it was buying a shipment of nitrate to send to Rhosus, on condition of anonymity, told OCCRP that he had not seen any evidence of Verbonol's IT activity and that they continued to supply fertilizers, including the number of ammonium nitrate.

In addition, as the journalists found out, in the same 2013, Savaro purchased and sent to the port of Beira in Mozambique - the same where Rhosus was heading - another 17 thousand tons of ammonium nitrate in three different batches. The representative of the Mozambican company Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, which bought saltpeter as a raw material for the production of explosives (she was also supposed to receive the Rhosus cargo), confirmed to reporters that the company had acquired two consignments from a Ukrainian company, about which they knew that it was headed by “Mr. Vladimir ". I bought the third cargo of saltpeter in Ukraine and Croatia and sent it to Mozambique.

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