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Inside Beirut’s ground zero: Astonishing images reveal the scale of devastation in Lebanese capital

These astonishing images show the scale of the destruction in Beirut after an explosion tore through the port killing more than 100 people, leaving thousands injured and 300,000 people now homeless.

Rescuers worked throughout the night and into Wednesday morning scouring ground zero for survivors after the cataclysmic blast that has wrecked entire neighbourhoods in the Lebanese capital.

The scale of the destruction was such that the capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless as smoke rose from fires still burning this morning.

Hospitals across the wrecked city were overwhelmed with patients, as medics worked in impossible conditions after the electricity was knocked out in the blast. Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, broke into tears as he toured the blast site. ‘Beirut is a devastated city,’ he said.

Marwan Ramadan was 500 yards away from the port but was still blown off his feet by the blast. ‘It was a real horror show,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the war.’ 

The streets on Wednesday morning were littered with glass and entire buildings have been destroyed or left without roofs or balconies as people walked the streets dazed and weeping as they surveyed the ruins around them.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed those responsible will ‘pay the price’ as he declared a two-week state of emergency to deal with the crisis.

As crestfallen residents surveyed the damage today, the true cost of the explosion could hit £5billion according to the governor of Beirut Marwan Abboud.

The blast – in a country already in the midst of an economic crisis – appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse and was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 150 miles to the northwest. 

It is thought to have been sparked when a welder caused a fire at the port, which in turn set light to a warehouse storing chemicals which had been seized from a ship six years ago.  

‘We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,’ said Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer, speaking from a hospital where his two daughters were receiving treatment after sustaining cuts despite being half a kilometre from the seat of the blast.

‘We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,’ he said, his voice choked by tears.

In the areas closest to the port, the amount of destruction caused by the long years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 was achieved in a second by a blast that levelled buildings within a radius of several hundred metres.

One resident of Mar Mikhail, one of the most affected neighbourhoods, said she saw bodies strewn in the middle of the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast. 

The mushroom-shaped explosion – which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude quake – and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.

‘The Apocalypse’ read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past, but none quite this big. 

 Critical infrastructure was affected by the blast, including the port, the airport and hospitals.

Firefighters had already been on the scene dealing with an initial blaze when the explosion took place. One security source told Reuters today that the initial fire was caused during welding work on a hole in a warehouse wall.

That fire spread, and before firefighters could control it, apparently detonated the ammonium nitrate. 

One Israeli bomb expert suggested fireworks could have been involved in the initial blaze.

Explosives certification expert Boaz Hayoun said: ‘Before the big explosion … in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles. This is very specific behavior of fireworks.’

After the second, more devastating explosion, 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. 

Charbel Haj, who works at the harbour, said the explosion started as small explosions like firecrackers before he was suddenly thrown off his feet by the huge blast. 

The explosion damaged the Roum Hospital, which put out a call for people to bring it spare generators to keep its electricity going as it evacuated patients because of heavy damage.

Outside the St George University Hospital in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighbuorhood, 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 at the hospital. Dozens of injured were being treated on the spot on the street outside, on stretchers and wheelchairs.   

Lebanon’s Red Cross said it had been drowning in calls from injured people, many who are still trapped in their homes.  

Miles from the scene of the blast, balconies were knocked down, ceiling collapsed and windows were shattered.  

Beirut’s main airport, six miles away from the port, was reportedly damaged by the explosion, with pictures showing sections of collapsed ceiling. 

Beirut’s governor told journalists he does not know the cause of the explosion and said he had never seen such destruction, comparing the sobering scenes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

For a long time after the blast, ambulance sirens sounded across the city and helicopters hovered above. 

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city’s western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). 

And in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island lying 110 miles (180 km) northwest of Beirut, residents reported hearing two large bangs in quick succession. 

One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.  

‘We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether its accidental or manmade act,’ he said. 

Condolences poured in from across the world with Gulf nations, the United States and even Lebanon’s arch foe Israel offering to send aid. France also promised to send assistance.

The blast revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck. 

‘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. 

UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed his ‘deepest condolences … following the horrific explosions in Beirut’ which he said had also injured some United Nations personnel. 

Boris Johnson offered to help the crisis-hit country, tweeting: ‘The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking. 

‘All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident. The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.’ 

The UK Foreign Office has said a few of its embassy staff sustained non-life threatening injuries in the blast. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said in a tweet: ‘The images of explosions in Beirut are deeply worrying. Our thoughts are with those affected, the emergency services and the people of Lebanon.’ 

Offers of aid also came from bitter rivals Israel, with which it is still technically at war. 

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, on behalf of the State of Israel, have offered the Lebanese government – via international intermediaries – medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance,’ said a joint statement from the two ministries.  

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that France stood ‘alongside Lebanon’ and was ready to help, tweeting: ‘France stands and will always stand by the side of Lebanon and the Lebanese. It is ready to provide assistance according to the needs expressed by the Lebanese authorities. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: ‘We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy.’

Iran’s foreign minister has said it is standing by to help Lebanon recover from the fallout of the explosion.

Countries in the Gulf paid tribute to victims of the explosion as Qatar said it would send field hospitals to support Lebanon’s medical response.

Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani called President Michel Aoun to offer condolences, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency.

Sheikh Tamim wished ‘a speedy recovery for the injured,’ adding that he ‘expressed Qatar’s solidarity with brotherly Lebanon and its willingness to provide all kinds of assistance’. 

Outside one hospital, Omar Kinno sat on the pavement, holding back tears. Kinno, a Syrian, said one of his sisters was killed when the blast rocked their apartment near the port, and another sister’s neck was broken. 

His injured mother and father were taken to a hospital but he didn’t know which, and he was making calls trying to track them down.

‘I have no idea what happened to my parents. I am totally lost,’ he said.

Vital infrastructure was damaged, with Roum Hospital putting out a call for generators. One medical centre received 300 emergency patients. ‘I’ve never seen this. It was horrible,’ a medic there said.

Confusion reigned across the city, as people cleared out of damaged homes or tried to locate family. Motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.

Soldiers cordoned off the port last night, amid warnings that the burning chemicals could give off toxic fumes.

Regardless, relatives of the missing arrived at the perimeter.

A woman in her twenties stood screaming at security forces, asking about the fate of her brother, a port employee.

‘His name is Jad, his eyes are green,’ she pleaded, to no avail as security forces would not let her enter.

Nearby another woman almost fainted while also asking about her brother who worked at the port.

But even the security forces were not immune from emotion.

The body of one of their colleagues was brought to them on a stretcher. A fellow officer pulled out a photograph of the dead man with his fiancée, and the comrades wept.

In St Maron Parish, the priest was broadcasting his sermon to his congregation, as is the norm during coronavirus. The video shows an initial blast knocks out the power and the candles behind him blow out ominously – but he perseveres, unaware of what is approaching.

Seconds later the main blast wave hits, bringing stained-glass windows crashing onto the altar. As he flees, footage shows one piece of masonry smashes into his back, sending him to the ground. 

But in a rare piece of positive news yesterday, locals reported he was not badly hurt.

Inside the port itself, the hangars looked like charred cans, everything destroyed beyond recognition as fire-fighting helicopters flew overhead, dumping water.

Out at sea, ships burned. The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, said one of its boats in the port was damaged and a number of its peacekeepers were injured, some seriously.

Authorities worried that fires on boats could trigger yet more explosions, or oil slicks if they sink.

‘The explosion caused an opening in it, and there are serious injuries on board,’ said one Egyptian sailor, pointing at his craft, the Mero Sar, in the harbour.

Reporters from the city’s newspaper, the Lebanon Daily Star, released footage of their own office obliterated.

Miles from the scene of the explosion, balconies were knocked down, ceiling collapsed and windows were shattered.

Even areas largely undamaged were in darkness last night, with power cuts across the city.

One woman covered in blood from the waist up walked down a devastated street while talking furiously on her phone. On another street, a woman with a bloodied face looked distraught, staggering through traffic with two friends at her side.

A young man passed by. ‘This country is cursed,’ he muttered.

Israel has denied having anything to do with the huge explosion in Beirut, adding that the country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon.

The huge explosion in port warehouses near the city centre as killed more than 100 people, injured over 4,000 and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground.

Officials said they expected the death toll to rise further after Tuesday’s blast as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.

Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role.

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

The offer comes after two weeks of heightened tensions between the rival neighbours, which involved a series of border clashes between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah on Israel’s northern frontier. 

Earlier this month, Israel accused Hezbollah of trying to send gunmen across the UN-demarcated Blue Line and said it held the Lebanese government responsible for what it termed an attempted ‘terrorist’ attack. 

There have been numerous similar border spats in recent years but the most recent full-scale conflict broke out between the two sides in 2006 after Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two, sparking the 34-day Israel-Lebanon war. 

Hezbollah launched rockets at its southern neighbour and Israel returned fire, bombing Lebanese towns, villages and key infrastructure targets. 

The conflict ended inconclusively and the two sides are still, technically, at war. Lebanon is one of 31 UN member states that does not recognise Israel’s existence as a state.  

International aid in the form of emergency workers and medical personnel is already on its way to Lebanon. 

France says it is sending two planes with dozens of emergency workers, a mobile medical unit and 15 tons of aid. French President Emmanuel Macron’s office says the aid should allow for the treatment of some 500 victims.

French peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon, a former French protectorate, have been helping since the explosions, Macron’s office said.

Jordan says a military field hospital including all necessary personnel will be dispatched, according to the Royal Court. Egypt has opened a field hospital in Beirut to receive the wounded.

Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek says Lebanon has accepted an offer to send a team of 37 rescuers with sniffer dogs to Beirut. Denmark says it is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, and Greece says it is ready to help Lebanese authorities ‘with all means at its disposal.’ 

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, has appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation, saying: ‘We are witnessing a real catastrophe.’ He reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the massive explosion at Beirut’s port will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.

Diab’s speech came the morning after the blast killed at least 100 people and wounded thousands. 

Smoke was still rising from the port Wednesday morning. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.

Lebanese Red Cross official George Kettaneh said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded, and said the toll could rise further. 

After yesterday’s explosion, Shi’ite Iran, the main backer of militant political party Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power. 

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

Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

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

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and wounded people walked through streets searching for relatives.

‘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.

The U.S. embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.  

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port followed by an enormous blast, sending up a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (one mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

It was not immediately clear what caused the initial blaze on Tuesday that set off the blast.

Lebanon’s health minister said more than 50 people had been killed and more than 2,750 injured. Lebanon’s Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had ‘disappeared’ after the explosion.

President Michel Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. He said it was ‘unacceptable’ that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for six years without safety measures.

The explosion occurred three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port. 

Western countries including the United States, Britain and France also said they were ready to assist.

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 6 million.

It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and which is already grappling with economic meltdown under one of the world’s biggest debt burdens.

Residents said glass was broken in neighbourhoods on Beirut’s Mediterranean coast and inland suburbs several kms (miles) away. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.

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