Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Beirut explosion: Death toll rises to 135 as city reels day after blast

More than 4,000 people were injured in the blast, officials said, as the rescue operation continued

The death toll following two enormous explosions in Lebanon's capital city rose to at least 135 on Wednesday, as rescuers continued efforts to retrieve injured people from the rubble spread across central Beirut.

Beirut's governor Marwan Abboud spoke of "an apocalyptic situation" he said may have made 300,000 people temporarily homeless and would cost the country over $3 billion.

The blast left the Lebanese capital resembling the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left destitute and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.

Smoke was still rising from the port, where a towering grain silos had been shattered. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out. At hospitals across the city people had been waiting all night for news of loved ones who had gone missing or were wounded. Others posted requests for help online.

The death toll is expected to rise as overburdened hospitals continue to treat victims of the blasts.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said 2,750 tonnes of the agricultural fertiliser ammonium nitrate that had been stored for years in a portside warehouse had blown up, sparking "a disaster in every sense of the word". He promised an investigation into who was responsible for the blast.

Lebanon's cabinet on Wednesday agreed to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, ministerial sources told Reuters.

It was not clear how many officials would be included or their seniority level. The army will oversee the house arrest until responsibility is determined for a huge explosion at the port that occurred on Tuesday, the sources said.

But a senior Lebanese politician represented in the government predicted impunity for whoever is responsible for the carnage.

“The government will not do anything to hold those responsible. We are seeing an accumulation of decades of state collapse,” the politician told The National.

He said that although the political players buried their differences for now, long-term aid to limit the economic collapse will not come because it is contingent on reform.

“We are unable to do it and we do not want to do it,” he said, referring to structural reforms demanded by possible donors and international financial institutions.“We will get medicine and field hospitals. But such a government will not receive structural help.”

The government announced a two-week state of emergency that will see the army take over security of the capital after a meeting of the Higher Defence Committee late on Tuesday. Ministers confirmed the state of emergency on Wednesday. President Michel Aoun ordered 100 billion Lebanese pounds (Dh245 million) to be released as an emergency fund.

Messages of support poured in from around the world, including France, which said it would send three planes carrying rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic, followed by a visit Thursday by President Emmanuel Macron.

MP Nicolas Sehnaoui, of the Free Patriotic Movement, said Lebanon is facing a “humanitarian crisis of global proportion”.

“This compounded with the economic crisis we are facing and the banking system failure to some extent puts Lebanon and its population at a very high risk of total failure,” he said. “So we are organising as best we can as a state, NGOs and civil societies to cope with emergencies of the situation, securing homes for the homeless, security for houses and medical services for the injured,” said the parliamentarian.

The silo drains which held part of the reserves in cranes and strategic reserves of Lebanon, according to Mr Sehnaoui, are badly damaged.

“We need all the help we could get from Lebanon’s friends abroad,” he said, adding that he hoped that Lebanon would "rise again like a phoenix" as it has always done after numerous crises.

General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said the material being stored at the port had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes from Beirut's shopping and nightlife districts.

The explosion was the most powerful ever seen in the city, which was on the front lines of the 1975-1990 civil war and has endured conflicts with neighbouring Israel and periodic bombings and terror attacks.

“L’Apocalypse,” read the front page of Lebanon’s French L’Orient Le Jour newspaper. Another paper, Al Akhbar, had a photo of a destroyed port with the words: “The Great Collapse.”

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its hospitals are confronting a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

A soldier at the port, where relatives of the missing scrambled for news of their loved ones, told AFP: "It's a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground. Ambulances are still lifting the dead."

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday said it could be a possible attack, despite statements by Lebanese leaders that it was probably caused by highly explosive material that had been stored at warehouses in the capital for years.

"The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon," Mr Trump said at a White House briefing following 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, Mr Trump said he had met some US generals who feel the blast was not "some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event". "They [the unnamed generals] seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind."

The Pentagon referred questions to the White House.

Two US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was not clear where Mr Trump was receiving his information but that initial information did not appear to show that the explosion was an attack.

Updated: August 6, 2020 04:05 AM

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