A massive explosion at Lebanon’s main port rocked Beirut, overwhelming hospitals dealing with the injured and dying. The blast was so large it blew out windows across the capital and was even heard from Cyprus.
Authorities say it was caused by highly explosive materials at the port, but didn’t say whether it was an accident or an attack. The casualty toll continued to climb through the night on Tuesday, with the health minister saying around 11 p.m. that 67 people were killed and some 3,600 injured.
Video footage showed what appeared to be a fire, followed by crackling lights and then a much larger explosion as an enormous cloud of smoke rapidly engulfed the area around the Port of Beirut. Buildings in the area and miles away were severely damaged, including the electricity company and other government entities.
The price of oil climbed to the highest level in almost two weeks as the blast stoked fears over instability in the region. U.S. benchmark crude futures climbed 1.7%.
The aftermath of the explosion left people rushing for help on foot and motorbikes, some with blood streaming over their faces, outside a Beirut hospital. One hospital said it had taken in 400 people and others appealed for blood donations, saying they’d reached their capacity.
“Beirut has never seen anything like this before,” Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told reporters near the scene, comparing it to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. “It is a destroyed city, people lying on the streets, damage everywhere.”
Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the blast as a “major national disaster” and said the depot that was the reason for the blast had been there since 2014.
“I will not rest until we hold whoever is responsible accountable and punish them with the most severe punishment,” he said. “It’s unacceptable that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate have been stored in a container in a depot for the past six years,” he said during a meeting of the Higher Defense Council.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo expressed his condolences and said in a statement, “We are closely monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this tragedy.
The explosion took place during the first of a two-day grace period that the government had given citizens before it reinforces a full lockdown with a curfew to contain the coronavirus epidemic after the country saw a major spike in cases in recent weeks.
Traffic was heavy throughout the day as people flooded the capital and other areas. Myriam Sawma, 31, was among the many who left their homes to buy essentials before the lockdown resumed.
“I was at the mall and we heard the first blast and then another and complete white smoke covered the area. People were screaming and running everywhere,” said Sawma, who was at a popular mall in the neighborhood of Ashrafieh.
Beirut and its suburbs are home to many embassies, nongovernmental organizations and most government entities and agencies as well as ministries and headquarters of political parties. The general secretary of the Kataeb Party, Nizar Najarian, was killed in the explosion. He was chairing a meeting for the party at its headquarters, near the site of the blast.
Debris has covered the entire port, damaging trucks and other shipping containers. Black smoke could still be seen billowing into the sky hours after the blast. The port receives handles 6 million tons of shipments a year and is the country’s main port.
Too Many Crises
Lebanon is reeling under its worst financial and economic crisis, with a sharp plunge in its local currency eroding purchasing power and throwing many into poverty and unemployment. The government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion bailout and has tried to collect aid from Gulf countries, but to no avail.
Gulf countries are wary that any funds would be channeled to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that’s listed by those countries and the U.S. as a terrorist group. The foreign minister resigned earlier this week, saying Lebanon could become a failed state.
A shortage of U.S. dollars has wreaked havoc on an economy almost completely reliant on imported goods. The central bank is using whatever is left of its reserves to subsidize the import of wheat, fuel and medicine and has recently said it would help import essential food items, albeit at a weaker exchange rate.
Apart from the financial crisis, Lebanon was also bracing for a verdict from a United Nations-backed court on Friday in the case of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has accused four members of Hezbollah of having a role in the killing, which was a turning point in the country’s modern history. The assassination was followed by a series of similar attacks that killed politicians and journalists.
The assassination sparked nationwide protests and forced the collapse of a government as well as the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had stationed in Lebanon after the civil war from 1975-1990, ending its tutelage over its neighbor.
Hezbollah has denied the allegations and said it would not hand over the suspects, describing the court as an Israeli tool aimed at sowing strife. Lebanon and Israel are technically still in a state of war. Israel immediately said it had nothing to do with the explosion.