Beirut reels from huge blast, as death toll climbs to at least 100
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[August 05, 2020]
By Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese rescue workers
dug through the mangled wreckage of buildings on Wednesday looking for
survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast
wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly
Officials said the toll was expected to rise after Tuesday's blast at
port warehouses that stored highly explosive material.
The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still
scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic
meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.
It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the
Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.
President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in
fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without
safety measures. He called it "unacceptable".
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the
incident on negligence. Ordinary Lebanese blamed politicians who have
overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that has plunged
Lebanon into financial crisis.
"It's like a war zone. I'm speechless," Beirut's mayor, Jamal Itani,
told Reuters while inspecting damage he estimated ran into 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.
The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams
were trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom
employees and people working in the area or driving through during the
Tuesday afternoon rush hour.
The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up
morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.
Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was
sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars
near the port were flipped over.
"This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building
shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake," said Bilal, a man in his
60s, in the downtown area.
Like others, he blamed the political elite. "We already have a financial
economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will
they compensate for the losses? Who will compensate for those who lost
their loved ones," he said.
Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the
past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped
back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with
medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field
hospital, ISNA news agency said.
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A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in
Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which
have been demanding political change in Lebanon, also offered help.
The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialised
search and rescue teams.
"This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the
ruling class," said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily
damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.
For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war
that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of
which had been rebuilt. Post-war reconstruction and political
corruption mired Lebanon in huge debts.
"With this blast they took us back to the years of war ... Our
leaders are in a coma," said Ali Abdulwahed, 46, a manager at Café
de l'Etoile, a restaurant next to parliament.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised accountability, saying: "Those
responsible will pay the price".
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that
set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started
by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.
The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation's
main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6
million people. Lebanon has already been struggling to house and
feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.
Lebanon's main grain silo at the port was destroyed, leaving the
nation with less than a month's wheat reserves.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which moved to another part of the city
after a huge bomb attack struck its originally waterfront embassy in
1983, warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the
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
Iranian-backed 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 another part of the Beirut
waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.
(Reporting by Ayat Basma, Samia Nakhoul and Ellen Francis; Writing
by Dominic Evans, Ghaida Ghantous, Tom Perry; Editing by Edmund
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