A massive explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has killed at least 10 people, left hundreds more injured and ripped through much of the city including the home of the former prime minister.
The Future Movement Party confirmed that ex-PM Saad Hariri is safe, but the country’s health minister said the blasts had caused a ‘very high number of injuries’ and huge damage.
Medical sources told Reuters that at least 10 people been killed by the explosion, yet the death toll is expected to be significantly higher when later confirmed by officials.
Beirut’s Hotel Dieu Hospital was reported to be treating more than 500 wounded patients and not able to receive more, while Lebanon’s Red Cross said it had been drowning in calls from injured people, many who are still trapped in their homes.
The explosion happened at around 6pm local time at the city’s port, where warehouses are believed to contain explosive materials.
Dramatic footage shows smoke billowing from the port area shortly before an enormous fireball explodes into the sky and blankets the city in a thick mushroom cloud.
Witnesses have stressed the sheer enormity of the blast, which was reportedly heard in Cyprus, and likened it to a ‘nuclear bomb’.
It obliterated the immediate surrounding buildings, where firefighters were still battling flames this evening, and even wreaked havoc on districts miles away from the blast site.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said: ‘It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material.’
Pointing to what appears to be fireworks shooting out of the smoke, experts said a combination of fireworks and highly flammable fertiliser could have sparked such an explosion.
Prime Minister Hasan Diab has declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and President Michel Aoun called for ‘urgent’ defence council talks.
Israel has denied any involvement amid escalating tensions with the militant group Hezbollah along the country’s southern border.
It comes just days before a United Nations tribunal is set to rule on the assassination of the country’s former PM Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.
The Middle Eastern country is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades and has seen demonstrations.
Miles from the scene of the blast – which people in Cyprus even claimed to have heard – 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.
The city’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, which were obliterated by atomic bombs in the Second World War.
Local Fady Roumieh was stood in the car park to shopping centre ABC Mall Achrafieh, around 2km east of the blast, when the explosion occurred.
He said: ‘It was like a nuclear bomb. The damage is so widespread and severe all over the city. Some buildings as far as 2km are partially collapsed. It’s like a war zone. The damage is extreme. Not one glass window intact.’
One witness said: ‘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.’
Another witness said she saw heavy grey smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames of fire and black smoke.
They said: ‘All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos.’
‘Buildings are shaking,’ tweeted one resident, while another wrote: ‘An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away’.
Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling.
It comes amid political tension in Lebanon, with street demonstrations against the government’s handling the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Late last year investigators revealed what was effectively a state-sponsored pyramid scheme being run by the central bank, which was borrowing from commercial banks at above-market interest rates to pay back its debts and maintain the Lebanese pound’s fixed exchange rate with the US dollar.
In January mass protests against the corruption allegations and a faltering economy led to the fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government.
His predecessor , Independent Hassan Diab, cut the country’s budget by $700million and put in place a financial rescue plan a month later.
But Lebanon’s problems have persisted after the Covid-19 pandemic forced global border closures, and protests have returned after the Lebanese pound fell in value, despite a lockdown being imposed in March.
Many businesses have been forced to close, but as prices continue to rise with a devalued currency some are struggling to buy basic necessities, and the prime minister warned that Lebanon was at risk of a ‘major food crisis’.
Analysts suggest the crisis has been prolonged because of political sectarianism, with the president, prime minister and speaker split between the three largest cultural groups; Christians; Shia Muslim; and Sunni Muslims.
Parliament is also drawn down the middle between Christian and Muslim members.
With the country’s governance in need of unity between the competing groups, external powers have been able to interfere in the country. Iran, for instance, backs the militant Hezbollah Shia movement.