The evening of August 4th came together with a new turning point in the on-going crisis in Lebanon. Several explosions took place, after a fire, in the port area, in the center of the city, killing at least 100 people and injuring more than 4,000.
According to different news channels, quoting President Michel Aoun, about 2,750 tonnes of explosive material (ammonium nitrate, used as a fertilizer in agriculture and as an explosive) had been stored unsafely in a nearby warehouse. Officials said that an investigation was underway to find the exact trigger which caused the ammonium nitrate – which had reportedly been stored in a warehouse after it was unloaded from a ship impounded at the port in 2013 – to explode.
In a media statement, the Director of Customs, Badri Daher, confirmed that there was a fireworks warehouse next to the ammonium nitrate warehouse which exploded. He made the port management take responsibility for the drama.
In addition, British former intelligence officer Philip Ingram told the BBC’s Today programme that ammonium nitrate could only be turned into an explosive substance under certain circumstances. Mr. Ingram said that safely stored it was relatively safe but that in confined space and when contaminated with items such as fuel oil it could cause an explosion.
Lebanon’s Supreme Defence Council said those found responsible for the explosion would face the “maximum punishment” possible.
Local media showed people trapped beneath rubble and video footage showed wrecked cars and blast-damaged buildings. The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, described it as a “huge catastrophe”, adding: “There are victims and casualties everywhere.” The head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Firass Abiad, told the BBC there had been “extremely chaotic” scenes in the aftermath of the blast, with most hospitals being overwhelmed.
The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon. With Covid-19 infections on the rise, hospitals were already struggling to cope. Now, they are faced with treating thousands of injured people.
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.
The blast happened close to the scene of a huge car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A verdict is due in the trial of four men accused of orchestrating the attack on Mr. Hariri at a special court in the Netherlands.
The country is also going through an economic crisis. Lebanon imports most of its food and large quantities of grain stored in the port have been destroyed causing fears of widespread food insecurity to come. Also, the future of the port itself is in doubt due to the destruction caused and with many buildings and homes reduced to an uninhabitable mess of glass and debris, many residents have been left homeless.
The capital’s governor, Marwan Abboud, for his part estimated that the extent of the damage was between three and five billion dollars, “maybe even more” and that “up to 300,000 people were left homeless”.
After the cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning, August 5th, a two-week state of emergency and three-day mourning were declared. President Aoun announced that the government would release 100 billion lira ($66m) of emergency funds but the impact of the blast on the economy is expected to be long-lasting.
Meanwhile, several states (US, UK, Kuwait, and Iraq) sent their condolences to the Lebanese people and also showed themselves willing to provide urgent assistance
During the call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Diab informed Pompeo of the extent of initial losses; he also assured him that investigations had begun and that all responsible officials would be held accountable.
On Thursday, August 6th, the French President Emmanuel Macron is set to have a state visit in Lebanon. During the information phone call, Prime Minister Diab thanked the French President for France’s permanent standing with Lebanon and briefed him about the disaster that struck the country, appreciating Macron’s initiative to send three planes carrying medical equipment to Beirut, stressing the historical bilateral relations between the two countries and valuing France’s support stemming from a great and steadfast keenness on preserving Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.