Beirut : The country’s health ministry says more than 70 people have been killed and over 3,700 injured in the explosion that the interior minister says took place in a depot storing confiscated ammonium nitrate.
A massive explosion has rocked Beirut, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky.
The country’s health ministry said 78 people were killed and over 3,700 injured in Tuesday’s blast.
A civil defence official on the scene of the blast said his men had evacuated dozens to hospitals and that there were still bodies inside the port, many of them under debris.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that those responsible for an explosion at a “dangerous” warehouse in Beirut port area that rocked the capital would pay the price.
Later, the country’s Supreme Defence Council in its meeting recommended declaring Beirut a disaster-stricken city, declaring a two-week state of emergency in the capital and handing over security responsibility to military authorities.
A council statement, read live on television, said President Michel Aoun has decided to release 100 billion Lebanese pounds in emergency allocations from the 2020 budget.
Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi speaking to local media said the explosion took place in a depot storing confiscated ammonium nitrate.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said the explosion may have been caused by explosive materials confiscated years ago and stored at the city’s port.
“It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material,” the senior security official said, adding that an investigation would be launched into the explosions.
Diab declared a national day of mourning on Wednesday.
“I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability. … Those responsible will pay the price,” Diab said in a televised speech. “Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced and I will not preempt the investigations”.
Dozens of ambulances ferried the injured from the port area, where the wounded lay on the ground, Associated Press staff at the scene said. Hospitals called for blood donations.
The head of the Lebanese Red Cross told local TV there were hundreds of casualties although many were superficial wounds from broken glass.
Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement said all of the country’s political powers must to overcome the “painful catastrophe” unite after the explosion.
Video taken by residents showed a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes of what appear to be fireworks.
The fire then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave over the city.
“It was like a nuclear explosion,” said Walid Abdo, a 43-year-old school teacher in the neighbourhood of Gemayzeh near Beirut.
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said it started as small explosions like firecrackers, then the huge blast erupted and he was thrown off his feet. His clothes were torn.
Miles from the port, balconies were knocked down, windows shattered, streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars.
Motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.
One woman covered in blood from the waist up walked down a trashed street while talking furiously on her phone.
On another street, a woman with a bloodied face looked distraught, staggering through traffic with two friends at her side.
“This country is cursed,” a young man passing by muttered.
An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the blast.
Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group are bitter enemies, and tensions have been high following a series of recent clashes.
The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse, hit both by a financial crisis and coronavirus restrictions.
Many have lost jobs, while the worth of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged in value against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.
The explosion was reminiscent of massive blasts during Lebanon’s civil war and took place only three days before a UN-backed tribunal was set to give its verdict in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing more than 15 years ago. That explosion, with a ton of explosives, was felt miles away, just like Tuesday’s explosion.
It was the latest chapter for a country that has suffered a 15-year civil war, repeated conflict with Israel, political assassinations and various other crises including the current unprecedented financial and economic crisis.