Lebanese rescue workers dug through rubble looking for survivors of a powerful warehouse explosion that shook the capital Beirut, killing 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000 in a toll that officials expected to rise.
Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses storing highly explosive material was the most powerful in years in Beirut, already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, and he said that was “unacceptable”.
Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.
“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage on Wednesday that he estimated would cost billions of dollars. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed.
“We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said. Kettani earlier told broadcaster LBCI that the Red Cross was coordinating with the health ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed.
Hours after the blast, which went off shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital. The blast was heard throughout Cyprus, which is about 100 miles (160 km) away.
It revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.
Dazed, weeping and injured people walked through streets searching for relatives. “The blast blew me metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the U.S. embassy in 1983,” said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised there would be accountability for the blast at the “dangerous warehouse”, adding “those responsible will pay the price”. The U.S. embassy in Beirut warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks.
“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 late on Tuesday.
Footage of the explosion posted on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (one mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help in clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.
The explosion came three days before a U.N.-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 that 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.
Officials in Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, said it had nothing to do with the 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 Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power. Cyprus said it was ready to offer medical aid.
At a White House briefing, U.S. President Donald Trump indicated that the blast was a possible attack, but two U.S. officials said initial information contradicted Trump’s view.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday cast a massive explosion in Beirut as a possible attack, despite statements by Lebanese leaders that it was likely caused by highly explosive material that had been stored at warehouses in the capital for years.
“The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon,” Trump said at a White House briefing of Tuesday’s explosion, which killed at least 78 people and injured thousands. “It looks like a terrible attack.”
When asked later about his depiction of the explosion, Trump said that he had met with some U.S. 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.”
The Pentagon referred questions to the White House. Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear where Trump was receiving his information but that initial information did not appear to show that the explosion was an attack.
The officials said the information so far tracked closer to what Lebanese officials had publicly given. They added that it was still early and could change as time went on. Lebanon’s 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”.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised address to the nation there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the “dangerous warehouse”. Cyprus said it stood ready to offer medical aid to neighbouring Lebanon after a massive blast ripped through Beirut port, killing at least 78 people and injuring thousands.
“Cyprus is ready to accept injured persons for treatment and send medical teams if required,” Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides told state broadcaster CyBC. Tuesday’s explosion was heard throughout Cyprus, which lies about 100 miles (160 kms) away. Christodoulides said the Cypriot embassy in Beirut, which was closed at the time of the blast, was extensively damaged.
Iran’s president offered on Wednesday to send medical aid to Lebanon and treat people injured in the massive blast that killed at least 100 people in Beirut. “Iran announces its readiness to send medical aid to Lebanon and also offers treatment of the injured and other necessary medical assistance,” Hassan Rouhani said, according to state TV. “We hope that the circumstances of this incident will be determined as soon as possible and that peace will return to Beirut.
Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is among those searching for survivors in Beirut after a massive blast in the city killed 100 people and injured nearly 4,000, and Ankara has offered to build a field hospital and help as needed.
“We’ve relayed our offer to help” including immediate work on the hospital, and “we are expecting a response from the Lebanese side,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.
Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses storing highly explosive material was the most powerful in years in Beirut and prompted aid offers from countries including the United States, Israel and Turkey.
Members of the IHH group were digging through debris to look for people and recover bodies, and the group mobilised a kitchen at a Palestinian refugee camp to deliver food to those in need, said Mustafa Ozbek, an Istanbul-based official from the group.
“We are providing assistance with one ambulance to transfer patients. We may provide help according to the needs of the hospital,” he said.
Lebanon’s main grain silo at Beirut port was destroyed in a blast along with the wheat inside, leaving the nation with less than a month’s reserves of the grain although other vessels with supplies are on the way, the economy minister said on Wednesday.
Raoul Nehme told Reuters a day after Tuesday’s devastating blast that Lebanon needed reserves for at least three months to ensure food security and was looking at other storage areas.
He said reserves now stood at “a bit less than a month”.
The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, leaving the port district a wreck of mangled masonry and disabling the main entry port for imports to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.
The Beirut silo was capable of holding 120,000 tonnes of grain, said Ahmed Tamer, the director of the port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city.
The port in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest port, is not equipped with grain storage facilities but wheat could be transferred to warehouses 2 km (about one mile) away, he said.
At the time of the blast, the Beirut silo held no more than 15,000 tonnes of wheat as some millers had unloaded cargoes directly because of a delay in issuing letters of credit for payment, Ahmed Hattit, the head of the wheat importers union, told the local Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Hattit said existing reserves of flour were sufficient to cover market needs for a month and a half and said there were four ships carrying cargoes totalling 28,000 tonnes of wheat that had not docked at the port yet.
Lebanon is trying to immediately transfer four vessels carrying 25,000 tonnes of flour to the port in Tripoli, an economy ministry official told news channel LBCI.
Britain is working urgently to decide what technical and financial help it could provide to Lebanon after a massive blast ripped through Beirut killing at least 100 people.
“The government is working urgently this morning on what we can do to help the Lebanese government with technical support and of course working with our allies to provide financial assistance,” British junior education minister Nick Gibb told BBC radio.
“There will be further announcements this morning and later today about what support we will be providing to Lebanon,” Gibb said.
Abu Dhabi state defence and security entity Tawazun is to build a satellite assembly, integration and testing centre with Airbus in the United Arab Emirates’ oasis city of Al Ain, state news agency WAM reported on Wednesday.
The centre also intends to manufacture components for small to medium-sized communication, navigation and hyperspectral satellites weighing between 50 and 250 kilograms, it reported.
It is targeted to open at the start of 2021, it said without providing a specific date.
Airbus is to provide the UAE’s National Space Science and Technology Centre, whose facilities the centre would be located within, with support during the design, outfitting and commissioning stage.
Airbus would also be responsible for procurement, installation and operational qualification for the equipment.
The UAE is pushing to develop its scientific and high-tech capabilities as part of efforts to reduce its reliance on oil.
The Gulf state last month sent a probe into space to orbit Mars and send back data about the atmosphere of the red planet.
The UAE announced plans for the mission in 2014 and launched a National Space Programme in 2017 to develop local expertise. Its population of 9.4 million, most of whom are foreign workers, lacks the scientific and industrial base of big space exploring nations.
French President Emmanuel Macron will fly to Beirut on Thursday and will meet the country’s political figures, after a blast ravaged the Lebanese capital, his office said.
Macron, who spoken to Lebanese President Michel Aoun shortly after the blast, has already ordered French emergency assistance be sent to Lebanon, a country with deep historical ties to France.