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AFP
August 5, 2020

Over 70 perish, thousands injured Mushroom cloud explosions hit Beirut

Top Story

AFP
August 5, 2020

BEIRUT: Two enormous explosions rocked Beirut’s port on Tuesday, killing at least 73 people and wounding 3,700, shaking distant buildings and leaving the Lebanese capital in fear and chaos.

The deafening second blast sent an enormous orange fireball into the sky, flattened the harbourside and sent a tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city, shattering windows kilometres away. The scale of life loss and destruction prompted Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab to ask "friendly countries" to send help. "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," he said in a televised address. He also vowed that those responsible would be held to account. "What happened today will not pass without accountability. Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price. "

The cause of the explosions was not immediately known but a top official, General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, said confiscated explosive materials had been stored at the city´s port. "It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material," he said. Prime Minister Diab in his speech promised announcements about "this dangerous warehouse that has been in existence for six years, since 2014".

Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130-metre (420 foot)-long grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone. Retired US nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer wrote on Twitter that the "red cloud" of the massive blast was "very likely ammonium nitrate", a common agricultural fertiliser that is a highly explosive compound.

The video footage of the aftermath of the blasts showed areas of near-complete devastation, with cars flipped onto their roofs like children´s toys, and warehouses flattened. An AFP correspondent at the scene minutes after the blast said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked. Outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children.

A soldier at the port told AFP: "It´s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground." The huge blaze sent up black smoke from the port area, as helicopters dumped water on burning buildings. A ship moored off the port was on fire. The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks with wailing sirens and relatives of workers who had been inside. Relatives of people who worked inside the blast zone gathered at a security cordon as they scrambled for news of their loved ones. "Ambulances are still lifting the dead," the soldier said. The health ministery feared the casualties could still go up. Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades, said it was "like an atomic bomb". "I´ve experienced everything, but nothing like this before," even during the country´s 1975-1990 civil war, she said. The country´s Red Cross reported "hundreds of wounded" and called for urgent blood donations.

The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away. An Israeli government who requested anonymity told AFP: "Israel had nothing to do with the incident." Lebanon´s President Michel Aoun called for "urgent" defence council talks, while Prime Minister Hasan Diab declared Wednesday a day of mourning.

Meanwhile, the explosions wounded staff at the German embassy, the German foreign ministry said. "The wounded also include embassy personnel," the ministry said. "We cannot for the moment exclude German nationals figuring among the dead and wounded."

The country is already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Lebanon´s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment.

The explosions also came three days before a UN tribunal´s verdict on the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge 2005 truck bomb attack. Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in The Hague over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.

France and Iran offered Lebanon ´assistance´. Tehran´s top diplomat expressed support for the "resilient" people of Lebanon. Israel also offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon, with which it is still technically at war.