Death toll in Beirut blasts rises to 135, around 5,000 injured: Health Minister

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The number of deaths in the Beirut blasts continues to rise with the latest figures at 135 deaths, around 5,000 wounded, Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Wednesday.

"There are still tens missing," Hassan was quoted as telling a local Lebanese TV channel.

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Early Wednesday morning, the Red Cross said that there were 4,000 people injured and around 100 dead.

“We have compiled a list of aid and sent it to several countries,” Hassan said. “We need everything to hospitalize the victims, and there is a acute shortage of everything.”

Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses storing highly explosive material was the most powerful in years in Beirut, already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.

George Kettaneh told LBCI TV by telephone that the Red Cross was coordinating with the health ministry for morgues to take victims because hospitals were overwhelmed.

President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, and he said that was “unacceptable.”

He called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. A security source and local media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.

“What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told a local broadcaster. “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (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.

Thirteen hours after the blast, smoke was still billowing from the port, where a towering grain silos had been shattered.

The blast revived memories of a 1975-90 civil war and its aftermath, when Lebanese endured heavy shelling, car bombings and Israeli air raids. Some residents thought an earthquake had struck.

Dazed, weeping, and injured people walked through streets searching for relatives.

“The blast blew me off meters away. I was in a daze and was all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the US embassy in 1983,” said Huda Baroudi, a Beirut designer.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the “dangerous warehouse,” adding “those responsible will pay the price.”

The US embassy in Beirut warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.

Many still missing

“There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health
Minister Hamad Hasan told Reuters.

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

Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help in clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.

The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shia Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

Israeli officials said Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday’s blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance. Shia Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Saudi Arabia.

Cyprus said it was ready to offer medical aid. The explosion was heard throughout Cyprus, which is about 100 miles (160 km) away.

At a White House briefing, US President Donald Trump indicated that the blast was a possible attack, but two US officials said initial information contradicted Trump’s view.

Al Arabiya English's Joseph Haboush contributed to this article.

With agencies

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