Lebanon puts port officials under house arrest, declares state of emergency after explosion

The Lebanese government says it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port for years.

The move comes amid speculation that negligence was to blame for Tuesday’s explosion that killed more than 100 people.

It was announced following a cabinet meeting Wednesday during which the government declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time.

Meanwhile, residents of Beirut awoke to a scene of utter devastation after the explosion that sent shock waves across the Lebanese capital, wounding thousands of people.

Smoke was still rising from the port, where huge mounds of grain gushed from hollowed-out silos. Major downtown streets were littered with debris and damaged vehicles, and building facades were blown out.

A view shows damages at the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area. It appears ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse at the dock for six years. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

An official with the Lebanese Red Cross said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded. The official, George Kettaneh, said the toll could rise further.

“There’s glass absolutely everywhere,” said CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard. “Basically what we have this morning in Beirut is a massive clean-up operation.”

Rescue workers were attempting to dig through rubble to locate anyone trapped, Collard said, making it likely the current toll of dead and injured will change.

Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called “Locating Victims Beirut” sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of missing or wounded people throughout the night. 

A view shows damaged buildings following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area. (Mohamed Azazir/Reuters)

Among those confirmed dead was Nazar Najarian, a businessman who moved back to Lebanon from Montreal two years ago. Najarian’s wife and two kids are still living in Montreal, according to Aref Salem, a city councillor for the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent.

Sami Basbous, also from the Montreal area, was not seriously injured but was shaken by the blast.

“My body was thrown and I felt breathless,” he said. “It really felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”

It was unclear what caused the blast, which appeared to have been triggered by a fire and struck with the force of an earthquake. It was the most powerful explosion ever seen in the city, which was on the front lines of the 1975-1990 civil war.

WATCH l ‘We’re trying to collect ourselves: A Canadian in Beirut:

Sami Basbous says that hospitals are over capacity, and people ‘are trying to help each other.’ 3:54

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its hospitals are confronting a surge in coronavirus cases, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

“There are so many problems,” said Basbous. “And to add this on top of that is just so catastrophic. People are really hurting.”

Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut that had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage. A physician who identified himself as Dr. Emile said 16 staff and patients, including four nurses, died in the blast. He declined to give his last name out of privacy concerns.

The blast also wounded a number of United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the area. Bangladesh said 21 members of its navy were wounded, one critically. Italy, one of the top contributors to the UNIFIL mission, said one of its soldiers was wounded.

Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, including Israel. The two countries have been in conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant group based in Lebanon.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would be travelling to Lebanon on Thursday to offer support for the country.

WATCH l Bride knocked down in blast:

A wedding photographer captured the explosion’s impact while recording a bridal video. The bride is seen being led to safety. 0:29

Lebanon is a former French protectorate and the countries retain close political and economic ties.

France is also sending emergency workers and several tons of aid after the explosion.

The European Union is activating its civil protection system to round up emergency workers and equipment from across the 27-nation bloc, including firefighters and use of its satellite mapping system to help Lebanese authorities establish the extent of the damage.

2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at port

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a local TV station that it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

Witnesses reported seeing an orange cloud like that which appears when toxic nitrogen dioxide gas is released after an explosion involving nitrates. Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertilizer but can also be highly explosive.

A man removes broken glass scattered on the carpet of a mosque damaged in Tuesday’s blast. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

There is no evidence the Beirut explosion was an attack.

Videos showed what looked like a fire erupting nearby just before, and local TV stations reported that a fireworks warehouse was involved. The fire appeared to spread to a nearby building, triggering the explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and generating a shock wave.

Search continues for missing people

Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.

In Beirut’s hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defence workers and soldiers were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others tried to free his leg.

The blast destroyed numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

People drive past buildings and cars that were damaged in Tuesday’s massive explosion. Countries around the world were pledging aid in the aftermath of the devastation. (Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, 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 disaster will pay the price, without commenting on the cause.

Wheat supply contaminated by blast

There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already hosting over one million Syrians amid that country’s years-long war.

The port’s major grain silo is run by the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade. Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast tore open those grain silos, dumping their contents into the debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Estimates suggest some 85 per cent of the country’s grain was stored at the now-destroyed silos.

An army helicopter drops water at the scene of Tuesday’s massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been “contaminated” and couldn’t be used. However, he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs. Nehme said Lebanon also would import more wheat.

The explosion came three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about two kilometres from the port.

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