BEIRUT (REUTERS) – A huge explosion in port warehouses near central Beirut killed more than 70 people, injured nearly 4,000 and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground across the Lebanese capital.
Officials expected the death toll to rise further after Tuesday’s (Aug 4) blast as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead.
It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures and said it was “unacceptable”.
He called for an emergency Cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen.“There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up.
Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role and offered help.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6pm (11pm Singapore time), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.
A security source said victims were taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were packed with wounded.
Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the eastern Bekaa valley were called in to help.
The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck.
Dazed, weeping and wounded people walked through streets searching for relatives.
“I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the nation.
“Those responsible will pay the price,” he said in his televised address, adding that details about the “dangerous warehouse” would be made public.
The interior minister told Al Jadeed TV that ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since 2014.
The US embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
SMOKE AND FIREBALL
Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and fireball into the sky.
Those filming the incident from high buildings 2km from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
A security source and local media said it was started by welding work carried out on a hole in the warehouse.
The government said it as still struggling to establish the full scale of the disaster. “There are many people missing.
People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hasan told Reuters.
“We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”
The prime minister called for a day of mourning on Wednesday, and the country’s banking association said banks would be closed.
Lebanon’s health minister said 78 people had been killed and nearly 4,000 injured.
Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.
The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had “disappeared” after the explosion.
President Michel Aoun called for an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defence Council. Prime Minister Diab called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2km from the port.
Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday’s blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance.
Shi’ite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Teheran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.
Western countries including the United States, Britain and France said they were ready to assist.
“The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon,” US President Donald Trump said at a White House briefing of Tuesday’s explosion.
“It looks like a terrible attack.”
When asked later about his depiction of the explosion, Trump said that he had met with some US generals who feel the blast was not “some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event.”
He told reporters that according to these unnamed generals “they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than 6 million.
It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and which is already grappling with economic meltdown under one of the world’s biggest debt burdens.
Residents said glass was broken in neighbourhoods on Beirut’s Mediterranean coast and inland suburbs several km (miles) away. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.
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