For Lebanon, grappling with a serious economic crisis and the urgency of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this is yet another tragedy reminiscent of the dark hours of war. If all the circumstances aren’t clear, here’s what we know so far.
Tuesday August 4, around 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Paris time), a loud explosion resounded in the port district, which is located in the city center, near the souks. It causes a fire. A second even more powerful explosion followed at 6:07 p.m., which released a mushroom reminiscent of nuclear explosions.
An apocalyptic explosion
The testimonies describe a powerful breath followed by a second even more terrible, apocalyptic, which seems in an instant to sweep everything in its path in the vibrant heart of the city of 2 million inhabitants. Windows were smashed for miles around, including at Beirut International Airport, which is 9 km away. The breath would have been felt as far as the island of Cyprus, more than 200 km away. In the evening, the American Institute of Geophysics (USGS), based in Virginia, clarified that its sensors had recorded the explosion as an earthquake of 3.3 on the open Richter scale.
VIDEO. Lebanon: two strong explosions shake Beirut, dead and thousands injured
This Wednesday at dawn, according to the Ministry of Health, the toll was 78 dead. At least. Because more than 4,000 people have been injured and an as yet uncertain number of others are missing. Hospitals, whose capacities have been exhausted by the coronavirus, are unable to treat the injured who arrive by ambulance, in vans, in the arms of relatives or neighbors. The Saint-Georges hospital, heavily damaged by the explosion, could not accommodate anyone and everyone fell back to the “Rizk”, the American hospital in Beirut, saturated despite its size. The Hôtel-Dieu is already treating 400 wounded … On Twitter, the Lebanese Red Cross is desperately calling on residents to come and give blood.
Among the dead, of all origins, was the leader of the Kataeb political party, Nazar Najarian, who was badly wounded in his office.
What is the cause of the explosions?
It is not known for sure. It was first said that a boat containing a load of fireworks had caught fire. This theory stems from the fact that in the waters of the harbor, a boat was indeed in flames. Concerns were also expressed, on social networks in particular, of an intervention by Israel against a cache of weapons from Hezbollah. But the Israeli government has reportedly assured its Lebanese counterpart of his entire innocence.
In the midst of the panic, Donald Trump sowed confusion, believing that the explosions “looked like a terrible attack” and that military experts had told him of a “bomb”. Overnight, three officials from the US Department of Defense told CNN, anonymously, that they did not know what the US president was talking about. As proof: American troops in the region have not been put on alert.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab spoke of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. They would have been stored for six years in a building at the port. The ignition of this substance, which is used to make fertilizers or explosives, is at the origin of the deadly explosion in France of the AZF factory in Toulouse, which claimed the lives of 31 people and left 2,500 injured. The explosion came ten days after the September 11 attacks. For months, the French authorities had strongly considered that it was an attack.
What was this ammonium nitrate doing in such a quantity? The director general of the General Security, Abbas Ibrahim said for his part that the explosions were perhaps due to explosive materials “confiscated for years”.
“I will only have rest when we find those responsible, when we bring them to justice to inflict a maximum penalty on them,” hammered the Prime Minister during a televised address.
The Port of Beirut
Port of goods and passenger transport, it is a nerve center on the Mediterranean coast for imports and exports from all over the Middle East. After the civil war, the infrastructure was modernized and new terminals built, reaching the size of four basins, sixteen docks, as well as a gigantic grain silo that can load two whole ships on its own. A free zone covers more than 32,000 m2 of warehouses.