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As Beirut death toll rises, Lebanese PM vows to punish those behind huge blast

Officials say over 60 dead, 3,000 wounded; source of blast appears to be highly volatile chemical compound stored at port, which may have caught fire and exploded

An injured man waits for help at the scene of a massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)
An injured man waits for help at the scene of a massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister said Tuesday those responsible for a massive blast that killed dozens of people and left wide swaths of Beirut in devastation would “pay the price,” as authorities scrambled to rescue the injured and find the cause of the explosion.

More than 60 people were killed and more than 3,000 injured, officials said, with the toll expected to rise as more bodies were pulled out of the rubble.

The blast, which sent a mushroom cloud into the sky, leveled several blocks around Beirut’s downtown port and caused damage several miles away, blowing out windows and knocking people off their feet.

The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis: Beirut hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.

Hours later, ambulances still carried away the wounded as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.

The cause of the blast was not immediately known.

Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said it might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port.

Local television channel LBC said the material was sodium nitrate. The material, which could be used to make fertilizer for industrial purposes or to make explosives, had been illegally shipped into Lebanon in 2014 and was being stored at the port as a legal dispute over its fate played out, according to al-Jazeera

Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange-colored cloud over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.

The scene of the explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

Lebanon’s prime minister vowed that those responsible would be held to account. “What happened today will not pass without accountability. Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,” Hassan Diab said in a televised address.

Diab also appealed for international assistance to help Lebanon, which is already mired in its worst economic crisis in decades.

“I am sending an urgent appeal to all countries that are friends and brothers and love Lebanon, to stand by its side and help us treat these deep wounds,” the prime minister said.

An Israeli government official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the blast. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. Israeli officials usually do not comment on “foreign reports.”

In a joint statement, Israel’s foreign and defense ministries said the country “approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid.”

President Reuven Rivlin tweeted “We share the pain of the Lebanese people and sincerely reach out to offer our aid at this difficult time.”

The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and bombardment by Israel. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.

“It was a real horror show. I haven’t seen anything like that since the days of the (civil) war,” said Marwan Ramadan, who was about 500 meters (546 yards) from the port and was knocked off his feet by the force of the explosion.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, January 21, 2020. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Health Minister Hassan Hamad said the preliminary toll was 60 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. Emergency teams streamed in from across Lebanon to help, and injured had to be taken to hospitals outside the capital.

Some of those injured lay on the ground at the port, Associated Press staff at the scene said. A civil defense official said there were still bodies inside the port, many under debris.

Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, broke into tears as he toured the site, saying, “Beirut is a devastated city.”

Initially, video taken by residents showed a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes of what appear to be fireworks. Local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved.

The fire then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave.

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

Miles from the port, building facades were shredded, balconies were knocked down and windows shattered. Streets were covered with glass and bricks and lined with wrecked cars. Motorcyclists picked their way through traffic, carrying the injured.

Rescue workers help an injured man at the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)

One woman covered in blood from the waist up walked down a trashed 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.

“This country is cursed,” a young man passing by muttered.

The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse from the financial crisis and the coronavirus restrictions. Many have lost jobs, while the value of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.

It also occurred amid rising tensions between Israel and the terrorist Hezbollah group along Lebanon’s southern border.

The explosion was reminiscent of massive blasts during Lebanon’s civil war and took place only three days before a UN-backed tribunal was set to give its verdict in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing more than 15 years ago. That blast, involving one ton of explosives, was felt miles away, just like Tuesday’s explosion.

Several of Beirut’s hospitals were damaged in the blast. Roum Hospital 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 neighborhood, 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.

“This is a catastrophe we have on our hands,” said one doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make press statements.

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