A two-week state of emergency has been declared in the still smouldering city of Beirut as officials admitted that a massive explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured as many as 5,000, could have been avoided.
More than 300,000 people are homeless in the Lebanese capital, where the blast – estimated to be about a tenth of the intensity of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb – sent shock waves through the city, destroying hundreds of buildings.
Investigators are trying to determine how 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilisers, came to be stored in a warehouse for six years, and ended up detonating after a fire is believed to have started in an adjacent building.
A similar amount of the industrial chemical was unloaded from a ship and impounded in the port in 2013, according to reports.
The Lebanese government has also ordered an unspecified number of port officials who had been responsible for storage and security since 2014 to be put under house arrest until responsibility for the disaster has been determined.
The army is said to have been drafted in to oversee the house arrests, while control of security in the capital has been handed to the military.
Investigators on Wednesday began sifting through the wreckage for clues pointing to the cause of the explosion.
An initial investigation reportedly found “negligence” and years of inaction surrounding the removal of the chemical could be to blame.
President Michael Aoun vowed the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible would be punished.
He said: “There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night.”
An official-looking letter which surfaced online appeared to show the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger and asked for a way to remove it.
However the correspondence, apparently from 2017, has not been confirmed as genuine.
If authentic, it could deepen the belief already expressed by some Lebanese that widespread mismanagement, negligence and corruption among the country’s ruling class is to blame for the explosion.
The explosion, hitting with the force of a 3.5-magnitude earthquake, has been described as one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions recorded.
A team from the University of Sheffield has calculated the strength of the blast – they believe the explosion was the equivalent of 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of TNT.
This is about a tenth of the intensity of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, but far bigger than any blast from a conventional weapon.
Shock waves smashed building facades, overturned cars, sucked furniture out into streets and shattered windows for miles inland.
Beirut governor Marwan Abboud warned hundreds of thousands of people may be unable to return to their homes for two or three months.
“There are more than 300,000 Lebanese citizens unable to sleep in their own homes,” he said in an interview with Jordan’s state-owned TV channel Al Mamlaka.
“Half of Beirut’s population have homes that are unliveable for the foreseeable future – for the next two weeks.”
Hundreds of Lebanese took to social media in the aftermath of the explosion to offer up spare beds and empty properties to victims, providing their names, phone numbers and details on the size and location of the accommodation.
The British government on Wednesday announced it would make up to £5m available for people left homeless by the devastating explosion.
The money is part of an emergency relief package that also includes specialist medical teams and NHS experts, search and rescue crews and additional support for the Lebanese armed forces.
But more than 24 hours after the blast, it appeared none of the UK aid was yet on the move, and it was unclear exactly when the relief package would be delivered.
France, the former colonial power in Lebanon, by contrast quickly sent planes filled with rescuers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic.
French president Emmanuel Macron will also travel to Beirut on Thursday to meet with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun.
Some of the injured in the city of about 360,000 had to be treated in the streets as hospitals were heavily damaged and doctors were overwhelmed by the number of people needing medical help.
The British Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal to raise funds for frontline responders.
Multiple search and rescue teams, including those from the Lebanese Red Cross, continue to work through the rubble to find anyone who has been trapped.
So far, the Lebanese Red Cross has sent all of its emergency medical support to the scene, including more than 75 ambulances and over 375 emergency medical responders from across Lebanon.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday said the government was “not sure on the precise figures” of the number of UK nationals caught up in the incident.
While schools minister Nick Gibb said all embassy staff based in Beirut were accounted for, although some suffered “non-life-threatening injuries”.
The explosion came as Lebanon was already suffering from a crippling economic downturn, food insecurity and a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Many have already lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis, while decades after the civil war, residents endure frequent power outages and poor public services.
Beirut’s governor estimated collective losses after the blast could reach between $10bn and $15bn, including both direct and indirect business losses.
Mr Abboud also told Al Hadath TV that wheat supplies are currently limited, although Lebanese local media reported an amount of wheat will arrive on Friday from Iraq as an aid.
Israel has also shown its support to Lebanon, despite the two countries technically still being at war.
Tel Aviv lit up its city hall with the Lebanese flag in solidarity with the people of Beirut, drawing an outcry from some in Israel, including the prime minister’s son.
But Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai said “humanity takes precedence over every conflict, and our hearts are with the Lebanese people following the horrible disaster that befell it”.
Both the Queen and Boris Johnson have also sent messages of condolence to the Lebanese government, with the prime minister pledging to “provide support in any way we can”.
Additional reporting by agencies
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