Beirut According to official figures, 78 people were killed and over 3,000 injured in a massive explosion in Beirut on Tuesday. In the evening, rescue workers searched rubble in the port of the Lebanese capital, from where the detonation could be felt as far as Cyprus. The exact cause of the explosion remained unclear. “We cannot pre-empt an investigation,” said the head of homeland security, Abbas Ibrahim. However, highly explosive material was stored at the site of the explosion. Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told the Al-Jadid TV station that ammonium nitrate had been stored in the port since 2014.
President Michel Aoun said on Twitter that it was unacceptable that 2,750 tons of the substance had been stored there for six years without safety measures. Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced on television that those responsible would pay “the price for this disaster”. There were no indications of an attack or a political background on Tuesday.
The substance could have come from a cargo ship that Lebanese authorities reportedly prohibited from continuing voyage in 2013 due to various defects. The ship was en route from Georgia to Mozambique, South Africa. The crew ran out of fuel and provisions, and the owner then apparently gave up on the ship. The crew was finally allowed to leave after a legal dispute. The ship was left with the dangerous cargo, which was housed in a warehouse.
Ammonium nitrate, which can also be used to make explosives, can detonate at higher temperatures. The substance is used for rocket propulsion and, above all, for the production of fertilizers. In Germany, the handling of ammonium nitrate falls under the Explosives Act.
According to the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, the tremors of the explosion were comparable to a 3.5 magnitude earthquake. Large parts of the port were razed to the ground.
The Red Cross was used by 30 teams. The army helped bring injuries to hospitals. Citizens were asked to donate blood. The Federal Foreign Office provides information on Twitterthat employees of the German embassy were also injured. Germany is now examining how it can help Lebanon, it said.
Photos of broken windows on houses and rubble on the streets circulated on the Internet. Dozens of cars were damaged. A police officer said the damage extended for miles. Shortly after the explosion, the phone and Internet in the city went down.
After an initial explosion, there was apparently at least one more. Video footage of local residents showed a huge fire in the harbor, which caused a lot of smoke to rise into the air. There were flashes of light, which presumably came from fireworks. Local TV stations reported the explosion occurred in the port in an area where fireworks were stored. The flames then seemed to spread to a building next door, causing an even bigger explosion.
After the detonation that shook the city, a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke rose. Eyewitnesses reported an orange cloud over the site of the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide are often accompanied by explosions in which nitrates are involved.
“It was like a nuclear explosion,” said Walid Abdo, a 43-year-old teacher from near Beirut. Charbel Hajj, who works in the port, reported that first there were small explosions such as fireworks, then there was a huge detonation in which he was thrown away. His clothes were torn. Other eyewitnesses said that many people were injured by flying glass and debris. A civil defense employee said there were still bodies in the port, many under rubble.
A Reuters reporter described a fireball, broken window panes and torn balconies, and screaming people walking around the streets. Another reporter from the news agency described clouds of gray smoke, then an explosion and flames. “All the windows in the city center are destroyed,” she said shortly after the detonation. “There is total chaos.”
According to information from security sources, the hospitals in Beirut were unable to cope with the number of injuries. Some have been taken outside the city for treatment. Ambulances have been requested from surrounding parts of the country such as the Bekaa Valley.
There was initially no evidence of an attack or a political background. A few kilometers from the site of the explosion, the then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 other people were killed in an explosive attack in 2005. His son’s residence, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was damaged in the explosion on Tuesday.
This Friday the UN-Lebanon Special Tribunal in The Hague wants to announce its verdict against four defendants in the 2005 case. Many in Lebanon blame the leadership of neighboring Syria for the attack on Hariri. Before his death, he had requested the withdrawal of the Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon at the time.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abbud burst into tears while visiting the site of the explosion. “Beirut is a devastated city,” he said.
Merkel, the EU and politicians around the world hold out the prospect of help
Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared Wednesday the day of nationwide mourning in memory of the victims. President Michel Aoun convened an emergency meeting of the National Defense Council.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was shaken. “Our thoughts are with those who have lost relatives. We wish the injured a quick recovery ”, the deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer quoted the Chancellor on Twitter. “We will offer our support to Lebanon.”
The EU has promised Lebanon assistance. “The European Union is ready to provide help and support,” said EU Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday evening. His thoughts are with the Lebanese people and the families of the victims.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote: “The European Union expresses its full solidarity and full support for the families of the victims as well as for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese authorities.” EU politicians did not comment on the possible cause of the disaster.
UN Secretary General António Guterres reacted with dismay to the explosion. “The Secretary General expresses his condolences to the families of the victims, as well as the people and the government,” said a spokesman in New York. Guterres wished the injured a speedy recovery, including some UN employees who work in the country. “The United Nations continue to undertake to support Lebanon in this difficult time and are actively helping to come to terms with this incident,” it said.
The US has also promised support to the Lebanese people. The US government is closely monitoring developments and is ready to support the Lebanese people to recover from the tragedy, said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He expressed his deepest pity to all those affected by the “massive explosion”. The considerable damage had been reported to him. The incident represents “an additional challenge in a time of the already deep crisis,” said Pompeo.
US President Donald Trump has meanwhile said that he thinks an attack is possible. Given the nature of the explosion, his “generals” assumed that it must have been some kind of bomb, Trump said in the White House. The US “stands ready to help Lebanon,” said Trump.
Although Israel and Lebanon are officially still at war, Israel has also offered humanitarian aid. “Under the direction of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel has turned to Lebanon through international diplomatic and defense channels,” the two ministers said in a joint statement. The Lebanese government had been offered “medical humanitarian aid”. Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations. Foreign Minister Ashkenazi cleared speculation that Israel might be behind the explosion.
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