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Massive explosion destroys Beirut port, leaves city shattered, dozens killed, over 2,500 injured

Massive explosion destroys Beirut port, leaves city shattered, dozens killed, over 2,500 injured
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Massive explosion destroys Beirut port

Highlights

Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above Lebanon's capital.

A huge explosion in a port warehouse district near the centre of Beirut killed more than 25 people, injured over 2,500 others and sent shockwaves across the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, shattering windows and causing apartment balconies to collapse.

Officials expected the death toll to rise sharply as emergency workers dug through rubble across a swathe of the city to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful blast to hit Beirut in years, making the ground tremble.

"What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe," the head of Lebanon's Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. "There are victims and casualties everywhere - in all the streets and areas near and far from the explosion."

Three hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 pm (1500 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.

A security source said victims were being taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were already packed with wounded. Red Cross ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to cope with the huge casualty toll.

The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and, wounded, people walked through streets searching for relatives.

Lebanon's interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. The minister later told Al Jadeed TV ammonium nitrate had been in storage there since 2014.

Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port district followed by an enormous blast, sending a ball of white smoke and fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 km (more than a mile) from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.

Hariri was killed in another huge blast on the waterfront, although on that occasion it was caused by a truck bomb.

SCREAMING AND RUNNING

It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday's blaze that set off the blast.

Internal Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, touring the port area, said he would not pre-empt investigations. An Israeli official said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with the blast.

The governor of Beirut port told Sky News that a team of firefighters at the scene had "disappeared" after the explosion.

"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.

Residents said glass was broken in houses from Raouche, on the Mediterranean city's western tip, to Rabieh 10 km (6 miles) east). For a long time after the blast, ambulance sirens sounded across the city and helicopters hovered above.

"All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos," a Reuters witness said.

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 over the city.

Another Reuters witness said she saw heavy grey smoke near the port area and then heard an explosion and saw flames and black smoke: "All the downtown area windows are smashed and there are wounded people walking around. It is total chaos."

UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters it was not immediately clear what the cause was, and that there was no indication of any injuries to any UN personnel.

"We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether it's an accidental or manmade act," he said.

The US State Department is closely following reports of an explosion in Beirut and stands ready to offer 'all possible assistance', a spokesperson for the agency said.

The US Pentagon said: "We are aware of the explosion and are concerned for the potential loss of life due to such a massive explosion."

In Cyprus, an island lying west of Lebanon, residents reported two large bangs in quick succession. One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.

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