Lebanese President Michel Aoun holds a High Defence Council meeting at the Baabda Palace following the blast
By JACK ELSOM and RYAN FAHEY and WILLIAM COLE FOR MAILONLINE
UNITED Kingdom — A massive explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has killed at least 73 people, left thousands more injured and wreaked devastation on the city.
The country’s health minister said more than 3,700 have been wounded following the blast at the city’s industrial port, where hazardous chemicals are stored in warehouses.
Dramatic footage from around 6pm local time shows smoke billowing from the harbor area shortly before an enormous fireball explodes into the sky and blankets the city in a thick mushroom cloud.
Witnesses have stressed the sheer enormity of the blast, which was heard 125 miles away in Cyprus, and likened it to a ‘nuclear bomb’.
It obliterated the immediate surrounding buildings, where firefighters were still battling flames this evening, and even inflicted damage on districts miles away from the blast site.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said: ‘It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material.’
Lebanon’s interior minister said ammonium nitrate had been stored in the unit since 2014, with experts agreeing that the chemical would cause the red plume of smoke which burst up from the blast.
Local media are reporting that 2,700 tonnes of the chemical exploded, causing a ‘strange smell’ at the port which has led officials to instruct civilians to leave for fear of any harmful toxins.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed in a televised address that ‘those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,’ and declared Wednesday a day of national mourning.
Lebanon’s prime minister vowed Tuesday that those responsible for two massive blasts in Beirut’s port, which killed at least 50 people and injured thousands, would be held to account.
‘What happened today will not pass without accountability. Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,’ Hassan Diab said in a televised address.
Diab also appealed for international assistance to help Lebanon, which is already mired in its worst economic crisis in decades.
‘I am sending an urgent appeal to all countries that are friends and brothers and love Lebanon, to stand by its side and help us treat these deep wounds,’ the prime minister said.
A senior security official said earlier that the explosions that shook the entire capital could be due to ‘explosive materials’ confiscated and stored in a warehouse ‘for years’.
Diab in his speech promised announcements about ‘this dangerous warehouse that has been in existence for six years, since 2014’.
Israel has denied any involvement amid escalating tensions with the militant group Hezbollah along the country’s southern border.
It even joined other countries including Britain, France, the US and several Gulf nations in offering aid to Lebanon, which is in the grip of its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
The UK Foreign Office has said a few of its embassy staff sustained non-life-threatening injuries in the blast.
Miles from the scene of the blast, balconies were knocked down, ceiling collapsed and windows were shattered.
Beirut’s main airport, six miles away from the port, was reportedly damaged by the explosion, with pictures showing sections of collapsed ceiling.
The port’s governor told journalists he does not know the cause of the explosion and said he had never seen such destruction, comparing the sobering scenes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were obliterated by atomic bombs in the Second World War.’
Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said the explosion started as small explosions like firecrackers before he was suddenly thrown off his feet by the huge blast.
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 six million.
Several of Beirut’s hospitals were damaged in the blast, with Roum Hospital putting out a call for people to bring it spare generators to keep its electricity going as it evacuated patients because of heavy damage.
Beirut’s Hotel Dieu Hospital was reported to be overwhelmed with more than 500 wounded patients and not able to receive more, while Lebanon’s Red Cross said it had been drowning in calls from injured people, many who are still trapped in their homes.
Outside the St George University Hospital in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighbuorhood, people with various injuries arrived in ambulances, in cars and on foot.
The explosion had caused major damage inside the building and knocked out the electricity at the hospital. Dozens of injured were being treated on the spot on the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.
Local Fady Roumieh was stood in the car park to shopping centre ABC Mall Achrafieh, around 2km east of the blast, when the explosion occurred.
He said: ‘It was like a nuclear bomb. The damage is so widespread and severe all over the city. Some buildings as far as 2km are partially collapsed. It’s like a war zone. The damage is extreme. Not one glass window intact.’
One witness said: ‘I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street.’
The explosion comes amid political tension in Lebanon, with street demonstrations against the government’s handling the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Late last year investigators revealed what was effectively a state-sponsored pyramid scheme being run by the central bank, which was borrowing from commercial banks at above-market interest rates to pay back its debts and maintain the Lebanese pound’s fixed exchange rate with the US dollar.
In January mass protests against the corruption allegations and a faltering economy led to the fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government.
His predecessor, Independent Hassan Diab, cut the country’s budget by $700 million and put in place a financial rescue plan a month later.
But Lebanon’s problems have persisted after the Covid-19 pandemic forced global border closures, and protests have returned after the Lebanese pound fell in value, despite a lockdown being imposed in March.
Many businesses have been forced to close, but as prices continue to rise with a devalued currency some are struggling to buy basic necessities, and the prime minister warned that Lebanon was at risk of a ‘major food crisis’.
Analysts suggest the crisis has been prolonged because of political sectarianism, with the president, prime minister and speaker split between the three largest cultural groups; Christians; Shia Muslim; and Sunni Muslims.
Parliament is also drawn down the middle between Christian and Muslim members.
With the country’s governance in need of unity between the competing groups, external powers have been able to interfere in the country. Iran, for instance, backs the militant Hezbollah Shia movement.
Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east).
And in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island lying 110 miles (180 km) northwest of Beirut, residents reported hearing two large bangs in quick succession. One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters it was not immediately clear what the cause was, and that there was no indication of any injuries to any U.N. personnel.
‘We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether its accidental or manmade act,’ he said.
For a long time after the blast, ambulance sirens sounded across the city and helicopters hovered above.
Boris Johnson offered to help the crisis-hit country, tweeting: ‘The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking.
‘All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident. The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.’
Offers of aid also came from bitter rivals Israel, with which it is still technically at war. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, on behalf of the State of Israel, have offered the Lebanese government – via international intermediaries – medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance,’ said a joint statement from the two ministries.
Last week, Israel accused the Lebanese group Hezbollah of trying to send gunmen across the UN-demarcated Blue Line and said it held the Lebanese government responsible for what it termed an attempted ‘terrorist’ attack.
Hezbollah said all of the country’s political powers must unite to overcome the ‘painful catastrophe’.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that France stood ‘alongside Lebanon’ and was ready to help, tweeting: ‘France stands and will always stand by the side of Lebanon and the Lebanese. It is ready to provide assistance according to the needs expressed by the Lebanese authorities.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: ‘We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy.’
Iran’s foreign minister has said it is standing by to help Lebanon recover from the fallout of the explosion.
Countries in the Gulf paid tribute to victims of the explosion as Qatar said it would send field hospitals to support Lebanon’s medical response.
Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani called President Michel Aoun to offer condolences, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency.
Sheikh Tamim wished ‘a speedy recovery for the injured,’ adding that he ‘expressed Qatar’s solidarity with brotherly Lebanon and its willingness to provide all kinds of assistance’.