Dozens killed in Beirut ex­plo­sion

More than 3,000 in­jured as port blast in Le­banese cap­i­tal blows out win­dows and over­turns cars

Times Colonist - - World - BASSEM MROUE and ZEINA KARAM

BEIRUT — A mas­sive ex­plo­sion rocked Beirut on Tues­day, flat­ten­ing much of the city’s port, dam­ag­ing build­ings across the cap­i­tal and send­ing a gi­ant mush­room cloud into the sky. More than 70 peo­ple were killed and 3,000 in­jured, with bod­ies buried in the rub­ble, of­fi­cials said.

It was not clear what caused the blast, which struck with the force of a 3.5 mag­ni­tude earth­quake, according to Ger­many’s geo­sciences centre GFZ, and was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilo­me­tres across the Mediter­ranean. Le­banon’s in­te­rior min­is­ter said it ap­peared that a large cache of am­mo­nium ni­trate in the port had det­o­nated.

The sud­den dev­as­ta­tion over­whelmed a coun­try al­ready strug­gling with both the coro­n­avirus pan­demic and a se­vere eco­nomic and fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

For hours after the ex­plo­sion, the most de­struc­tive in all of Le­banon’s trou­bled his­tory, am­bu­lances rushed in from around the coun­try to carry away the wounded. Hos­pi­tals quickly filled beyond ca­pac­ity, plead­ing for blood sup­plies, and gen­er­a­tors to keep their lights on.

For blocks around the port, blood­ied res­i­dents stag­gered through streets lined with over­turned cars and lit­tered with rub­ble from shat­tered build­ings. Win­dows and doors were blown out kilo­me­tres (miles) away, in­clud­ing at the city’s only internatio­nal air­port. Army he­li­copters helped bat­tle fires rag­ing at the port.

In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mo­hammed Fahmi told a local TV sta­tion that it ap­peared the blast was caused by the det­o­na­tion of more than 2,700 tons of am­mo­nium ni­trate that had been stored in a ware­house at the dock ever since it was con­fis­cated from a cargo ship in 2014. Wit­nesses re­ported seeing an orange cloud like that which ap­pears when toxic ni­tro­gen diox­ide gas is re­leased after an ex­plo­sion in­volv­ing ni­trates.

Videos showed what ap­peared to be a fire erupt­ing nearby just be­fore, and local TV sta­tions re­ported that a fire­works ware­house was in­volved. The fire ap­peared to spread to a nearby build­ing, trig­ger­ing the more mas­sive ex­plo­sion, send­ing up a mush­room cloud and gen­er­at­ing a shock wave.

Char­bel Haj, who works at the port, said the blast started as small ex­plo­sions like fire­crack­ers. Then, he said, he was thrown off his feet.

The ex­plo­sion came amid on­go­ing ten­sions be­tween Is­rael and the Hezbol­lah mil­i­tary group on Le­banon’s southern bor­der. Many res­i­dents re­ported hear­ing planes overhead just be­fore the blast, fu­el­ing ru­mours of an at­tack, though Is­raeli mil­i­tary over­flights are com­mon.

An Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said Is­rael “had noth­ing to do” with the blast. He spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not autho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter with the news media. Is­raeli of­fi­cials usu­ally do not com­ment on “for­eign re­ports.” The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment of­fered emer­gency as­sis­tance through internatio­nal in­ter­me­di­aries.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said the U.S. “stands ready to as­sist Le­banon,” and U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo ex­tended his “deep­est con­do­lences.”

“Our team in Beirut has re­ported to me the ex­ten­sive dam­age to a city and a peo­ple that I hold dear, an ad­di­tional chal­lenge in a time of al­ready deep cri­sis,” Pom­peo said in a writ­ten state­ment.

The blast was stun­ning even for a city that has seen a 15-year civil war, sui­cide bomb­ings, bom­bard­ment by Is­rael and po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions.

“It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the (civil) war,” said Mar­wan Ra­madan, who was about 500 me­tres from the port and was knocked off his feet by the force of the ex­plo­sion.

Health Min­is­ter Has­san Ha­mad said the pre­lim­i­nary toll was more than 70 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. He added that hos­pi­tals were barely cop­ing and offers of aid were pour­ing in from Arab states and friends of Le­banon.

Beirut’s gov­er­nor, Mar­wan Abboud, broke into tears as he toured the site, ex­claim­ing, “Beirut is a dev­as­tated city.” Prime Min­is­ter Has­san Diab vowed that “those re­spon­si­ble will pay.”

At the start of a White House news con­fer­ence on the coro­n­avirus, Trump said the ex­plo­sion “looks like a ter­ri­ble at­tack.” When asked by a re­porter if he was con­fi­dent that it was an at­tack, Trump said: “I met with some of our great gen­er­als and they just seem to feel that it was.”

But one of Is­rael’s top bomb ex­perts, Boaz Hay­oun, said fire­works could have been a factor setting off the big­ger blast. “Be­fore the big ex­plo­sion ... in the centre of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like pop­corn and you can hear whis­tles,” said Hay­oun, owner of the Ta­mar Group, which works closely with the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment on safety and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is­sues in­volv­ing ex­plo­sives. “This is very spe­cific be­hav­iour of fire­works.”

Some of those in­jured lay on the ground at the port, As­so­ci­ated Press staff at the scene said. A civil de­fence of­fi­cial said there were still bod­ies in­side the port, many un­der de­bris.

Sev­eral of Beirut’s hos­pi­tals were damaged in the blast. Out­side the St. Ge­orge Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal in Beirut’s Achrafieh neigh­bour­hood, 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.

The ex­plo­sion in Beirut’s port damaged build­ings and wrecked ve­hi­cles. A se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said it could have been caused by highly ex­plo­sive ma­te­rial that had been con­fis­cated from a ship and stored at the port.

In­jured peo­ple are trans­ported by sol­diers away from the scene of the blast.

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