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Beirut port blast kills at least 78, injures over 4,000 and flattens huge area of the city

Wednesday, August 5th 2020 - 08:38 UTC
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President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years

Lebanon is in mourning after a huge explosion in the capital Beirut killed at least 78 people and injured more than 4,000 others on Tuesday. The whole city was shaken by the blast, which began with a fire at the port which exploded into a mushroom cloud.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for six years. He scheduled an urgent cabinet meeting for Wednesday, and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. The country will observe an official period of mourning for three days from Wednesday.

President Aoun also announced that the government would release 100 billion lira (US$ 66m) of emergency funds.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon's Red Cross George Kettani told local media. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Rescue workers are continuing to search through rubble and the death toll is expected to rise.

Officials said on Tuesday that an investigation was under way to find the exact trigger for the explosion. Lebanon's Supreme Defence Council said those responsible would face the “maximum punishment” possible.

The ammonium nitrate had reportedly been unloaded from a ship impounded at the port in 2013, and then stored in a warehouse there.

The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon, with an economic crisis reigniting old divisions as the country struggles with the coronavirus crisis. Tensions are also high ahead of Friday's verdict in a trial over the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

The explosion occurred just after 18:00 (15:00 GMT) on Tuesday. Local media showed people trapped beneath rubble. A witness described the explosion as deafening, and video footage showed wrecked cars and blast-damaged buildings.

“All the buildings around here have collapsed. I'm walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark,” one witness near the port told AFP news agency. Hospitals were said to be overwhelmed and many buildings were destroyed.

The blast was also felt 240km away on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, with people there saying they thought it was an earthquake.

Literally all over Beirut, people were calling each other from different areas kilometres away and they were experiencing the same thing: broken glass, buildings shaking, a loud explosion.

Actually we were shocked because usually when it happens, just one area will experience those happenings after an explosion, but this time it was all of Beirut, even areas outside of Beirut.

Ammonium nitrate has a number of different uses, but the two most common are as an agricultural fertilizer and as an explosive. It is highly explosive when it comes into contact with fire - and when it explodes, ammonium nitrate can release toxic gases including nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas.

Because it's so flammable there are strict rules on how to store ammonium nitrate safely - among the requirements are that the storage site needs to be thoroughly fire-proofed, and there can't be any drains, pipes or other channels in which ammonium nitrate could build up, creating an additional explosion hazard.

Lebanon is experiencing political turmoil, with street demonstrations against the government's handling of the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Many blame the ruling elite who have dominated politics for years and amassed their own wealth while failing to carry out the sweeping reforms necessary to solve the country's problems.

People have to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water and limited public healthcare.

Categories: International.

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