A huge explosion in the port of Beirut devastated a large area of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, leaving at least 78 dead and some 4,000 injured.
Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s prime minister, described the blast as a “catastrophe” and asked for international support, declaring that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. The country’s higher defence council said Beirut was a “disaster zone” and Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, called for a two week state of emergency.
Interior minister Mohamed Fahmi said initial investigations suggested the explosion was caused by confiscated explosive material, according to local media. Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon’s customs authority, linked the explosion to ammonium nitrate being stored at the port, in comments to a local news channel.
Video footage on social media showed a large explosion that sent vast columns of smoke across the city.
Neighbourhoods in the immediate area of the blast have been devastated, with cars destroyed and windows and doors ripped from their frames, leaving thousands homeless. Rescuers were searching for people trapped under rubble as emergency sirens blared across the city.
The shockwave from the explosion caused property damage within a radius of several kilometres, and the boom was heard in the mountains and in coastal cities at least 40km away. Reports said the state energy company’s tower block headquarters in east Beirut had been badly damaged.
Thousands of wounded people overwhelmed hospitals, forcing medics to treat the injured in car parks and veterinary clinics, emergency responders and patients said. Some of those hurt were sent to hospitals in cities as far away as Tripoli, 80km north of the capital.
The blast comes as Lebanon was already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades and its hospitals were struggling to cope with a rising number of coronavirus cases.
This week a jury will also deliver a verdict on the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a massive car bomb that shook the city in 2005.
Mr Diab suggested a “dangerous warehouse that has been there [at the port] since 2014” was connected to the disaster.
An Africa-bound ship carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was impounded at the port in late 2013, according to legal reports at the time. The law firm prosecuting the case said the cargo had been unloaded into a warehouse.
Mr Diab said details about the warehouse would be made public.
“I will not pre-empt the investigations. At the moment, we are focusing on handling the disaster, pulling the martyrs out, and treating the wounded,” he said, according to the Lebanon’s National News Agency. “But, I promise that this catastrophe will not go unpunished and those responsible will be held accountable.”
Donald Trump suggested that the explosion was not an accident. The US president said he had spoken to some of his top generals who believed that a bomb was responsible for the explosion.
“I’ve met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that . . . this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event,” Mr Trump said at a White House press conference. “They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Mr Trump gave no further details.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the president’s statement.
A spokesperson for António Guterres, UN secretary-general, said the organisation was assisting in the response to the explosion, in which several of its own personnel had been injured.
Officials in Israel, which in 2006 fought a month-long war with Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, denied any involvement in the explosion.
Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s foreign minister, told Israeli television that “we see no reason not to believe the reports coming out of Beirut about an accident”.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo and Katrina Manson in Washington