Smoke rises after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4 2020. Picture: INSTAGRAM/REUTERS/KARIM SOKHN
Smoke rises after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4 2020. Picture: INSTAGRAM/REUTERS/KARIM SOKHN

Beirut — A huge explosion in port warehouses near central Beirut killed 78 people, injured more than 4,000 people and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground across the Lebanese capital.

Officials said they expected the death toll to rise further after Tuesday's 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.

"There are many people missing until now. 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 said. "We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages."

A large explosion rocked Lebanon's capital, Beirut, August 4 2020.

"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.

President Michel Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. He said it was "unacceptable" that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for six years without safety measures. He also  called for a day of mourning.

Lebanon's interior ministry  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, 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. Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east 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.

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.

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 up a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2km from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

It was not immediately clear what caused the initial blaze on Tuesday that set off the blast.

 The governor of Beirut port told Sky News a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had "disappeared" after the explosion.

The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shiite 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.

 Shiite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah,  offered support, as did Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.

Western countries including the US, Britain and France also said they were ready to assist.

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. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 180km across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

Reuters

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