A day after a massive explosion shook Lebanon's capital Beirut, dozens of people are still missing, trapped under the rubble as the death toll from the blast hit 135, the Lebanese Red Cross and Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Wednesday.
Beirut is in a two-week state of emergency after the blast flattened much of the city's port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Hours later, ambulances still carried away the wounded – now around 5,000 – as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
The state of emergency effectively gives the Lebanese military full powers in Beirut throughout the following two weeks.
It also approved an exceptional allocation of 100 billion Lebanese pounds to deal with the crisis. The sum is theoretically worth $66 million based on the official exchange rate of 1,500 pounds to the dollar, but is effectively worth some $13 million based on the latest rate on the parallel market, which stood at around 7,500 in the days before the explosion. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said in an interview with the Al-Hadath news network that the collective losses after the blast may reach $10 to $15 billion.
The Lebanese government decided Wednesday to put all officials in charge of the Beirut port complex under house arrest until the investigation into the explosion has been completed, ministerial sources said. According to the decision, the Lebanese army will be responsible for the implementation of the arrests, which will include all officials who have been responsible for the port since 2014.
Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.
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Lebanon's main grain silo at Beirut port was destroyed in the blast, leaving the nation with less than a month's reserves of the grain but enough flour to avoid a crisis, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told Reuters on Wednesday.
Lebanon needed reserves for at least three months to ensure food security and was looking at other storage areas, Nehme said. The economy was already in meltdown before the blast, slowing grain imports as the nation struggled to find hard currency for purchases.
"There is no bread or flour crisis," the minister said. "We have enough inventory and boats on their way to cover the needs of Lebanon on the long term."
He said grain reserves in Lebanon's remaining silos stood at "a bit less than a month" but said the destroyed silos had only held 15,000 tonnes of the grain at the time, much less than capacity which one official put at 120,000 tonnes.
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. An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence.
More than 200,000 people have become homeless after the massive blast at the port destroyed many buildings, the city's governor said.
Rescue teams are still searching beneath the rubble for bodies and wounded survivors. In the past hour, teams have reported that bodies that were thrown into the sea by the force of the blast were pulled out of the water as well. Those killed and missing include Lebanese soldiers, as well as firefighters and first responders.
Ordinary Lebanese blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that has plunged Lebanon into financial crisis.
There are increasing calls on Lebanese social media for the government to resign. One of Lebanon's senior journalists called on the prime minister and cabinet members to step down immediately: "You are all corrupt, you're all responsible,” he said. “You all must bear responsibility for the corruption, the oversight and the criminal negligence."
Several countries, including Israel, have offered Lebanon aid following the explosion. On Wednesday, the director of the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, Dr. Masad Barhoum, said they were "prepared to take in the wounded."
According to Barhoum, he had contacted Diab, as well as Lebanese President Michel Aoun and the country's parliament to extend a helping hand. He reiterated that in the past the center has treated 3,000 wounded from the Syrian civil war, and added that the Israeli army informed him of the possibility that some of the injured from Lebanon would arrive for treatment.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has extended his condolences to the Lebanese people and repeated an offer to send humanitarian aid to the country. In an address in the Knesset Wednesday, Netanyahu said the Israeli government stood ready to assist the Lebanese “as human beings to human beings.”
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are participating in a blood donation drive to try and help victims of the explosion. Dozens took part in a blood drive in the city of Khan Younis, which was sponsored by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Organizers said they will coordinate with the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to get the blood donations delivered to Lebanon.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that the flag of Lebanon will light up the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality building on Wednesday evening in solidarity with the victims of the massive explosion.
"Humanity comes before any conflict, and our hearts are with the Lebanese people following this terrible disaster," Huldai wrote on Twitter.
An Iraqi delegation said in a statement that the country will provide fuel aid to Beirut.
Britain will provide a 5 million pound ($6.6 million) aid package to Beirut, including search and rescue help and expert medical support, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced Wednesday.
Offers of international support and assistance continued to pour in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.
Iran's president, Hassan Rohani, also offered on Wednesday to send medical aid to Lebanon and treat the injured, according to state TV.
"We hope that the circumstances of this incident will be determined as soon as possible and that peace will return to Beirut," he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun also offered support, tweeting: “All our government agencies are ready to help the Lebanese people.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says it is airlifting medical supplies to Lebanon to cover up to 1,000 trauma interventions and up to 1,000 surgical interventions in the capital.
The United Nations says it is stepping up emergency assistance to Lebanon and is urging the international community to “stand beside” the Lebanese people who have generously hosted thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees for years.
Explosive material stored carelessly
Fireworks and ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port appear to have been the fuel that ignited the explosion, experts and videos of the blast suggested Wenesday.
Following the explosion, Aoun confirmed on Twitter that the explosion was caused by 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate which was stored in a Beirut port warehouse for six years without safety measures, and called this "unacceptable" and vowed that those responsible would face the "harshest punishments."
Beirut's governor had revealed that a security report from 2014 warned of the possibility of an explosion as highly explosive materials had not been stored safely.
Ammonium nitrate itself typically doesn't detonate on its own and requires another ignition source. That likely came from a fire that engulfed what initially appeared to be fireworks that were stored at the port.
Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, had said earlier that the blast might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. 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.
Despite this, U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday cast the explosion as a possible attack.
"The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon," Trump said at a White House briefing, adding that "It looks like a terrible attack."
When asked later about his depiction of the explosion, Trump said that he had met with some U.S. generals who feel the blast was not "some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event." He told reporters that according to these unnamed generals "they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind."
The Pentagon referred questions to the White House.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear where Trump was receiving his information but that initial information did not appear to show that the explosion was an attack.
The officials said the information so far tracked closer to what Lebanese officials had publicly given. They added that it was still early and could change as time went on.
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.
Israel denies involvement
The port was pointed to by Netanyahu in a 2018 UN speech as a civilian site where Hezbollah was storing missiles, with Israeli sources saying the storage site was evacuated after the speech.
An Israeli political source denied that the country had any connection to the incident, which came amid tensions with Hezbollah. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said they had used international mediators to offer humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon.
Al Mayadeen television quoted a defense official as saying the explosion was not caused by a terrorist act. Meanwhile, sources close to Hezbollah quoted by Al Mayadeen denied reports that the explosion was caused by an Israeli airstrike. These reports were not confirmed by any Lebanese or Israeli officials, nor were they carried by mainstream media.
DPA and Reuters contributed to this report.