Friday, 18 Sep 2020

Rescuers search for survivors after Beirut blasts

BEIRUT • Rescuers searched for survivors yesterday after cataclysmic explosions at Beirut’s port sowed devastation across entire city neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.

Beirut governor Marwan Abboud spoke of “an apocalyptic situation” which he said may have made 300,000 people temporarily homeless and would cost the country over US$3 billion (S$4.1 billion).

Lebanon’s Cabinet has declared a two-week state of emergency and handed control of security in the capital to the military.

The blasts left the Lebanese capital resembling the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left destitute and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment. “A massacre. I saw people screaming, covered in blood, homes broken, glass shattered, roads that look like Hiroshima or like a tsunami hit,” said Mr Elie Zakaria, a resident of a neighbourhood close to the port.

In an instant, the blasts left destruction equivalent to that caused by the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, levelling buildings several hundred metres away.

A resident of nearby Mar Mikhael, popular for its bars and cafes, said she saw bodies strewn in the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blasts.

Many people had been watching and filming a fire caused by an earlier explosion when the second, massive blast went off.

The resulting footage, widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shock wave engulfing everything around it.

The mushroom-shaped second explosion – which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake – and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.

Officials said the toll was expected to rise. President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He called it “unacceptable”.

Investigators will try to determine whether the blasts were accidents or intentionally triggered.

Lebanon’s Cabinet yesterday agreed to place all Beirut port officials who have overseen storage and security since 2014 under house arrest, ministerial sources said.

Ordinary Lebanese directed anger at politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that plunged the nation into financial crisis.

“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, told Reuters while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.”

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, Mr George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. “We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said.

One man was rescued yesterday after being trapped under rubble for 16 hours.

The intensity of the blasts threw victims into the sea and rescue teams are still trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and Customs employees and people working in the area or driving through during rush hour.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the wife of the Dutch ambassador to Lebanon was seriously injured. A spokesman said she had been admitted to hospital.

He said the blasts had caused extensive damage to the Dutch Embassy, also wounding four other people connected to it.

Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.

In the downtown area, Mr Bilal, a man in his 60s, said: “This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake.”

Like others, he blamed politicians. “We already have a financial economic crisis, people are hungry and these thieves and looters – will they compensate for the losses?

“Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones,” he said.

STRAITS TIMES GRAPHICS

Mr Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut, said: “This massive explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class.”

The blasts were heard as far away as Cyprus, a Mediterranean island about 240km across the sea from Beirut. Vast quantities of Lebanon’s wheat and rice supplies were destroyed, stoking fears of shortages in a nation which imports nearly all its food.

The explosions came three days before a United Nations-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi’ite Muslim group Hizbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

REUTERS, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Singapore sends condolences to Lebanon

The Singapore Government is saddened by the tragic loss of lives in the explosions in Beirut, Lebanon, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

“Our condolences go out to the families of the victims and the people of Lebanon during this difficult time,” it said in a statement yesterday.

MFA said it has contacted Singaporeans in Lebanon who are e-registered with the ministry, and has ascertained their safety.

There have been no reports of Singaporeans affected by the blasts, MFA said.

The ministry added that Singapore’s Honorary Consul-General in Beirut, Mr Joseph Salim Habis, and his family are safe.

However, as Mr Habis’ office has sustained some blast damage, it will be closed temporarily.

Singaporeans who need consular assistance in Lebanon are advised to call the MFA Duty Office in Singapore (24 hours) on +65 6379-8800/+65 6379-8855, or e-mail MFA at [email protected]

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