A warehouse where fuel was illegally stored exploded in northern Lebanon early Sunday, killing 20 people and burning dozens more amid severe gasoline shortages around the crisis-hit country.
It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion near the border with Syria Fuel smuggling operations have been ongoing for months.
The Lebanese Red Cross said a fuel tanker exploded and its teams recovered 20 bodies from the site in the border village of Tleil. In a statement, it said it evacuated 79 people who were injured or suffered burns in the blast.
Hours after the blast, Lebanese Red Cross members were still searching the area for more victims as Lebanese soldiers cordoned the area.
A Lebanese military official said the explosion occurred after the army confiscated a warehouse in Tleil where about 60,000 liters of gasoline were stored and the order was given to distribute the fuel to residents of the area. It was not clear what caused it, the official said told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Hospitals in northern Lebanon were calling for blood donations of all types. Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan called on hospitals in northern Lebanon and the capital, Beirut to receive those injured by the explosion, adding that the government will pay for their treatment.
The explosion comes as Lebanon faces a severe fuel shortage that has been blamed on smuggling, hoarding and the cash-strapped government’s inability to secure deliveries of imported fuel.
Tleil is about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Syrian border, but it was not immediately clear if the fuel in the tanker was being prepared to be smuggled to Syria. where prices are much higher compared to those in Lebanon.
The fuel crisis deteriorated dramatically this week after the central bank decided to end subsidies for fuel products — a decision that will likely lead to price hikes of almost all commodities in Lebanon, already in the throes of soaring poverty and hyperinflation.
On Saturday, Lebanese troops deployed to petrol stations, forcing owners to sell fuel to customers. Some gas station owners have been refusing to sell, waiting to make gains when prices increase with the end of subsidies.
The Lebanese army also has been cracking down on smugglers active along the Syrian border, confiscating thousands of liters of gasoline over the past days.
Lebanon’s consumption of diesel increased sharply over the past few months amid severe power cuts for much of the day that increased people’s reliance on private generators.
Lebanon has for decades suffered electricity cuts, partly because of widespread corruption and mismanagement in the small Mediterranean nation of 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees.
Sunday’s explosion was the deadliest in the country since an Aug. 4, 2020, blast at Beirut’s port killed at least 214, wounded thousands and destroyed parts of the capital.