The Lebanese army has seized 28 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser also used in making explosives, in a town near the Syrian border.
Hundreds of tonnes of the substance, improperly stored in Beirut, caused a huge blast in August last year which killed more than 200 people, injured at least 6,500 and destroyed large parts of the capital.
The quantities seized on Monday sparked fears among Lebanese that dangerous chemicals continue to be improperly stored, putting the country at risk of another incident at a time of economic crisis.
“Following information about the presence of ammonium nitrate in the town of Arsal, on October 4, an army patrol and military intelligence raided a gas station in the town, and seized 28,275 kilogrammes of ammonium nitrate” the Lebanese army said in a statement on Tuesday.
Soldiers arrested a Lebanese citizen and three Syrian men believed to have stored the ammonium nitrate inside a petrol station.
The bags indicated a nitrogen content of 26 per cent, the army said, adding that they were testing samples to check if the percentage was accurate.
Importing ammonium nitrate with more than 33.5 per cent nitrogen requires official permission from the Economy Ministry with the approval of Defence Ministry and the Council of Ministers. Anything with a higher nitrogen concentration is considered an explosive rather than a fertiliser.
Last month security forces raided a warehouse in the Bekaa Valley bordering Syria, where they found 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored inside a lorry.
The chemicals were moved to a safe place, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
It is unclear whether the substance seized on Monday in Arsal, an arid region where residents also farm cherries, was meant to be used as fertiliser.
Arsal has become notorious in Lebanon after extremists from Syria briefly took over the small border town and engaged in deadly clashes with the Lebanese army in 2014.
Days of fighting between the army, Al Nusra Front and ISIS killed at least 19 soldiers, dozens of civilians and 60 militants.
Hezbollah is also active on Lebanon’s porous border with Syria. Arsal is a Sunni majority town but the Shiite group Hezbollah wields great influence in the governorate where it is located.
The Iran-backed group is also allied with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on the other side of the border and has militarily backed the Syrian army since the onset of the civil war.
Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed found links between the Syrian regime and the ammonium nitrate shipment that exploded in Beirut.
The TV channel found links between three Syrian businessmen with close ties to Damascus and Savaro Limited, the company that bought the explosive chemical.
More than a year after the Beirut explosion, no one has been held accountable. The families of the victims have repeatedly decried a culture of impunity in Lebanon.
Earlier this year, politicians succeeded in removing the first investigative judge in charge of the blast case after he summoned them for interrogation.