A massive explosion shook Lebanon's capital Beirut on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people and wounding over 3,000, with bodies still buried in the rubble, Lebanese officials and humanitarian groups said.
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 as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.
The Lebanese Red Cross said Wednesday morning that the death toll has reached 100, but more victims must still be dug out of the extensive rubble.
Lebanese President Michel 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."
The president also said a state of emergency should be declared for two weeks in the capital, and called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
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The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon said one of its Maritime Task Force ships had been damaged and several of its naval peacekeepers injured in the explosion.
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.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday cast a massive explosion in Beirut as a possible attack, despite statements by Lebanese leaders that it was likely caused by highly explosive material that had been stored at warehouses in the capital for years.
"The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon," Trump said at a White House briefing of Tuesday's explosion, which killed at least 78 people and injured thousands.
"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.
Lebanon's Supreme Defense Council declared Beirut a disaster-stricken city follwoing the explosion and recommended the cabinet declare a state of emergency when it meets on Wednesday, according to a statement published sent to Reuters and carried by local media.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that those responsible for the explosion at the "dangerous" warehouse would pay the price. "I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability. ... Those responsible will pay the price," he said in a televised speech. "Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced and I will not preempt the investigations." The country's powerful Hezbollah movement meanwhile said all of the country's political powers must to overcome the "painful catastrophe."
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.
Beirut governor Marwan Abboud said the city was a "disaster area" and the scale of the damage was "enormous."
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.
Lebanon declared Wednesday would be a national day of mourning for the victims, the state-run National News Agency reported.
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. In a tweet, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called the explosion a "security incident that targeted the Beirut port."
The afternoon blast shook several parts of the capital and thick smoke billowed from the city center. Residents reported windows being blown out and a false ceilings dropping.
"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," said a Reuters witness.
Another Reuters witness said she saw heavy gray smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames of fire and black smoke: "All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos."
The port was pointed to by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse from the financial crisis and coronavirus restrictions. Many have lost jobs, while the worth of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged in value against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.
Nations offer assistance
The U.S. State Department was closely following reports of an explosion in Beirut and stood ready to offer "all possible assistance," a spokesperson for the agency said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. stood ready to provide any support it could to help.
Turkey and Jordan also said they were willing to provide aid to the Lebanese following the explosion. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Aoun and said Turkey was ready to provide humanitarian aid as needed, the presidency said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country was ready to help in any way necessary, and the emir of Qatar said he would dispatch field hospitals to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry said that it is following with great concern the consequences of the explosion, according to the state news agency. The statement also affirmed the kingdom's full support and solidarity with the Lebanese people.
France was willing to help in any way Lebanese authorities deemed necessary, its foreign minister said.
Kazakhstan's ambassador was wounded in the blast and the embassy building was damaged, it said in a statement.
Cyprus' president sent his "condolences to the Lebanese people" and said his country was willing to help.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.