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Desperate search for Beirut port blast survivors with 100 dead

Desperate search for Beirut port blast survivors with 100 dead

The explosion took place during the first of a two-day grace period before the government reinforces a full lockdown with a curfew to contain the epidemic

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Army personnel and rescue workers sifted through mountains of rubble from a massive explosion that flattened Lebanon’s main port, looking for survivors from a blast that roared through the capital, Beirut, killing at least 100 people and wounding thousands more.

Authorities appealed to other countries for emergency aid as concerns over food supply in the import-dependent nation mounted. Officials blamed highly explosive ammonium nitrate equivalent to 1,800 tons of TNT that had been stored at the port for years, without saying what triggered the blast. Among the pledges of support, France said it would send medical supplies and doctors by Thursday, while Germany offered members of its armed forces to aid search operations.

In Lebanon, outrage over the government’s role in the calamity ran high in a country already groaning under the weight of the worst financial crisis in its history, and a resurgent coronavirus outbreak. Dozens of people gathered in downtown Beirut as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri inspected the damage, beating cars in his convoy and shouting “They killed Beirut.”

The explosion was so powerful that it was heard in Cyprus, and severely damaged buildings miles away. Massive shipping containers were flipped upside down as if they were toys, and cranes melted under the intense fire that still burned on Wednesday, and was being doused by helicopters whirring above.

“It’s like an apocalypse,” lawmaker Yassine Jaber told Bloomberg. “Pure negligence and that’s the ultimate manifestation of how bad governance has been in Lebanon, with no accountability whatsoever, a manifestation of failure that should jolt us to wake up.”

Hospitals, already stretched to capacity by the virus emergency, were overwhelmed by a casualty toll that climbed throughout the night. At least 4,000 were injured, and dozens were missing.

The army cordoned off the port, through which much of Lebanon’s food and other supplies enter. The nation imports nearly all of its needs from abroad, including wheat and fuel, which the central bank has been subsidising from its dwindling reserves. Wheat silos at the port were damaged, and their contents – equal to about six weeks of the country’s needs – were rendered unfit for consumption, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said.

Nehme will be meeting with wheat importers and formulating a response plan, his office said.

“The damage is massive at the port and it will take a very long time to fix and build,” Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told a local television station. The port at Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, will serve as the alternative, possibly backed up by facilities in Sidon and Tyre, Najjar said.

The Beirut port handles 6 million tons of shipments a year. The Energy Ministry said the state power company’s headquarters was destroyed in the blast.

A two-week state of emergency was declared, and cabinet is expected to meet later in the day to discuss this latest crisis to beset the country. The government issued a global appeal for help, its own coffers emptied by corruption and mismanagement.

Before the blast, talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $10bn loan had stalled over the government’s failure to agree on a reform plan, and Gulf states deflected Lebanon’s request for a bailout, afraid money would fall into the hands of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants. Officials had been discussing ways to monetise the port.

The calamity was Lebanon’s worst in decades, fanning anger at a ruling elite that’s flared regularly since anti-government protests over corruption and mismanagement toppled Hariri’s government last year. Video footage showed what appeared to be a fire, followed by crackling lights and then a much larger explosion as an enormous cloud of smoke rapidly engulfed the area around the Port of Beirut.

The aftermath of the explosion left people rushing for help on foot and motorbikes, some with blood streaming over their faces, outside a Beirut hospital.

One hospital said it had taken in 400 people and others appealed for blood donations, saying they’d reached their capacity.

‘Destroyed City’
“Beirut has never seen anything like this before,” the city’s governor, Marwan Abboud, told reporters near the scene, comparing it to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. “It is a destroyed city, people lying on the streets, damage everywhere.”

Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the blast as a “major national disaster,” and said the material that caused the explosion had been there since 2014.

“I will not rest until we hold whoever is responsible accountable and punish them with the most severe punishment,” he said. “It’s unacceptable that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate have been stored in a container in a depot for the past six years,” he said during a meeting of the Higher Defense Council.

Ammonium nitrate, a widely used commercial chemical explosive, is almost as powerful as dynamite. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh used about 2 tons of the substance to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma.

In Washington, President Donald Trump added to confusion over the chain of events in Beirut, saying US military officials “seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.” He said he “met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event.”

He provided no evidence to back up that assertion and the White House National Security Council had no comment.

The explosion took place during the first of a two-day grace period that the government had given citizens before it reinforces a full lockdown with a curfew to contain the coronavirus epidemic after the country saw a major spike in cases in recent weeks.

Traffic was heavy throughout the day as people flooded the capital and other areas. Myriam Sawma, 31, was among the many who left their homes to buy essentials before the lockdown resumed.

“I was at the mall and we heard the first blast and then another and complete white smoke covered the area. People were screaming and running everywhere,” said Sawma, who was at a popular shopping center in the neighborhood of Ashrafieh.

Lebanon is also bracing for a verdict from a United Nations-backed court on Friday in the case of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has accused four members of Hezbollah of playing a role in the killing. The assassination sparked nationwide protests and forced the collapse of a government as well as the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had stationed in Lebanon after the civil war from 1975-1990, ending Damascus’s tutelage over its neighbour.

Hezbollah, which also plays an influential role in Lebanon’s political and economic life, has denied the allegations and said it would not hand over the suspects.

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