Por Samia Nakhoul e Yara Abi Nader
BEIRUT (Reuters) – A massive warehouse explosion in the port of Beirut killed more than 70 people, injured more than 2,750 and triggered shock waves that shattered windows, damaged buildings and shook the floor of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday.
Officials said the death toll is expected to rise as emergency crews dig through the wreckage to rescue people and evacuate the dead. It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which already suffers from an economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanon’s Interior Minister said initial information indicated that highly explosive material, seized years ago, was stored in the port and had exploded.
Israel, which has waged several wars against Lebanon, has denied any involvement and offered help.
“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the director of the Red Cross in Lebanon, George Kettani, told the Mayadeen network. “There are victims and dead everywhere.”
Hours after the explosion, which occurred shortly after 6 pm (local time), a fire was still burning in the port district, projecting an orange glow into the night sky, as helicopters flew overhead and ambulance sirens sounded throughout the capital.
A security source said victims were taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut’s hospitals were packed with wounded people. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Beca valley in the east were called in to help.
The explosion was so great that some residents of Beirut, where the memories of heavy bombing during the civil war that lasted between 1975 and 1990 are still alive, thought they were experiencing an earthquake. Stunned, injured and crying people walked the streets looking for relatives.
“I promise that this catastrophe will not go away without the culprits being held responsible,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a statement to the country. “Those responsible will pay the price,” he said in a televised speech, adding that the details of the “dangerous deposit” that exploded would be made public.
The Interior Minister told the television channel Al Jadeed that ammonium nitrate had been stored in the port since 2014.
Images of the explosion shared by city dwellers on social media show a column of smoke rising from the port followed by a huge explosion, causing a fireball and a white cloud in the sky. People filming the incident from tall buildings 2 kilometers from the port were thrown back by the shock wave.
It was not immediately clear what caused the initial fire outbreak that triggered the explosion.
Lebanon’s Health Minister said at least 78 people were killed and more than 2,750 were injured. The Lebanese Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.
The governor of the port of Beirut told Sky News that a team of firefighters who were fighting the initial fire had “disappeared” after the explosion.
President Michel Aoun called an emergency meeting of the Supreme Defense Council. The prime minister called for a day of mourning on Wednesday.
The powerful Lebanese Hezbollah movement said that all political forces in the country must overcome the “painful catastrophe” after the explosion.
A UN maritime task force vessel in Lebanon that was moored in the port of Beirut was damaged, and some peacekeepers were injured in the explosion, said the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Dubai, Beirut and Cairo newsrooms)