A huge explosion in port warehouses near central Beirut killed more than 50 people, injured over 2,750 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 blast as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful explosion to hit Beirut in years.
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 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), 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.
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 2 km (one mile) 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.
Lebanon’s health minister said more than 50 people had been killed and more than 2,750 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 U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite 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 2 km (about one mile) from the port.
Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations.
Israeli officials said Israel had nothing to do with the blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon. Shi’ite Muslim Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni Muslim power.
Western countries including the United States, 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 to suburbs several kms (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.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Additional reporting by Dubai, Beirut and Cairo bureaus; Writing by Dominic Evans and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Edmund Blair)