Lebanese prime minister vows someone will ‘pay the price’ for deadly explosion in Beirut

Lebanese prime minister vows someone will ‘pay the price’ for deadly explosion in Beirut

The latest:

  • Nearly 80 people dead, 4,000 injured
  • Highly explosive materials were stored at port, says minister.
  • Blast felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 160 kilometres away.
  • Lebanon’s Red Cross chief calls it “a huge catastrophe.”
  • Former Montrealer confirmed among the dead.
  • Lebanese president recommends two-week state of emergency for Beirut.
  • Israel says it played no role in explosion, ready to help Lebanon.

A huge explosion near the centre of Beirut killed close to 80 people, injured thousands and sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

The most powerful explosion to hit Beirut in years shook the ground, leaving some residents thinking an earthquake had struck. People walked through streets, dazed and weeping and some of them wounded, checking to see if relatives were hurt.

The blast occurred in the city’s port area. Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, which had been seized years ago and stored there, had blown up.

In remarks published on the presidency Twitter account, President Michel Aoun said it was “unacceptable” that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse for six years without safety measures and vowed that those responsible would face the “harshest punishments.” He called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media initially showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast that sent a ball of white smoke and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings in other areas of the city were thrown backward by the shock.

WATCH | Explosion in Beirut’s port caused widespread damage:

The blast cut a huge swath of destruction stretching several kilometres away from the waterfront. 1:06

Lebanon’s health minister told Reuters late Tuesday that at least 78 people had been killed and nearly 4,000 injured.

“There are many people missing… People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Hamad Hasan told Reuters. “We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”

Officials expected the death toll to rise further as emergency workers dig through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. 

An injured man walks near the site of a massive explosion that hit the seaport in Beirut on Tuesday. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

One medic said 200 to 300 people had been admitted to a single emergency department. “I’ve never seen this. It was horrible,” the medic, who gave her name as Rouba, told Reuters.

“The blast blew me off metres away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the U.S. embassy in 1983,” said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.

The explosion occurred three days before a United Nations-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shia group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 other people. 

Hezbollah issued a statement hours after the explosion, saying all of the country’s political powers must unite to overcome the “painful catastrophe.”

It was not immediately clear what caused the fire that set off Tuesday’s blast.

“It was like a nuclear explosion,” said Walid Abdo, a 43-year-old school teacher in the neighbourhood of Gemayzeh near Beirut.

Charbel Haj, who works at the port, said it started as small explosions like firecrackers, then the huge blast erupted and he was thrown off his feet. His clothes were torn.

Tweet from CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard:

WATCH | Rebecca Collard reports from near the explosion: 

CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard says the true number of casualties and scope of damage from an explosion in Beirut Tuesday may not be known for days. 5:32

Israel, Iran offer help

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast. 

Israel has offered humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz later said.

“Israel has approached Lebanon through international security and diplomatic channels and has offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian assistance,” a written statement from Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said.

Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.

Canada, the United States, Britain and France also said they were ready to assist.

Nearly 11,000 Canadians in Lebanon are listed in the Registration of Canadians Abroad (ROCA) database, a voluntary registry.

Global Affairs Canada is advising any Canadians in Lebanon to stay away from downtown Beirut. The Canadian embassy in Beirut will be closed until Aug. 7, but anyone needing assistance is being advised to contact the Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at 1-613-996-8885. An email can also be sent to sos@international.gc.ca.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told Mayadeen. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

A former Montrealer was confirmed to be among the dead. Businessman Nazar Najarian was in his office when the huge explosion occurred. 

Lebanese journalist Hanna Anbar told CBC’s As It Happens, that the port is basically gone. “There is nothing. Nothing. Every building looks like it has been bombed. It’s like an earthquake has hit the country.”

And he said there must be an investigation into what was in the warehouse to determine “why it happened and who did it, and was it an accident or was it something sabotage.”

Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. local time, a fire still burned in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

WATCH | Film director describes the damage to his home:

Lebanese film director Philippe Aractingi says the explosion in Beirut shook his house 0:27

Images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than six million.

It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Hospitals packed

A security source said victims were taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the eastern Bekaa valley were called in to help.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 kilometres to the east. For a long time after the blast, ambulance sirens sounded across the city and helicopters hovered above.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” a witness told Reuters.

‘Those responsible will pay the price’

“I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the nation.

“Those responsible will pay the price,” he said in his televised address, adding that details about the “dangerous warehouse” would be made public.

The interior minister told Al Jadeed TV that ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since 2014.

An injured man is seen following an explosion in Beirut on Tuesday that killed more than 60 people, injured thousands and sent shockwaves across the Lebanese capital. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Another witness told Reuters she saw heavy grey smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames and black smoke: “All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos.”

UN spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters it was not immediately clear what caused the blast, and that there was no indication of any injuries to any UN personnel.

“We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether it’s accidental or [a] manmade act,” he said.

In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 180 kilometres northwest of Beirut, residents reported hearing two large bangs in quick succession. One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.

Time of tumult

The explosions come at a time of tumult in the country. 

Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis poses the most significant threat to the country since a devastating 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The highly indebted government is facing rapidly increasing inflation, soaring unemployment and poverty, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dozens of Lebanese protesters tried to storm the Ministry of Energy on Tuesday, angered by prolonged power cuts as the country grapples with the crippling economic crisis.

Firefighters spray water at a fire after a huge explosion rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Published at Tue, 04 Aug 2020 16:01:49 +0000