BEIRUT – Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has called for a two-week state of emergency in Beirut following a huge explosion that claimed more than a hundred lives, injured thousands more and sent seismic shockwaves through the capital, with the country’s top defense body describing Beirut as a “disaster-stricken” city.
Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council headed by President Aoun held an emergency meeting at the Baabda presidential palace in the early hours of Wednesday.
Following the session, a statement by the council, read live on television, said Aoun had decided to release 100 billion Lebanese pounds in emergency allocations from the 2020 budget.
The council also recommended that a committee be tasked with investigating the blast and present its findings within five days to mete out the maximum punishment for those responsible.
It further suggested declaring Beirut a “disaster-stricken” city, announcing a two-week state of emergency in the capital and handing over security responsibility to military authorities.
Toll expected to rise
The blast took place on Tuesday in port warehouses near central Beirut storing highly explosive material, specifically ammonium nitrate, commonly used in both fertilizer and bombs.
The explosion — the most powerful in Beirut in years — flattened much of the strategic port and left buildings in ruin as a giant cloud of smoke rose above the capital.
Germany’s geosciences center GFZ said the explosion triggered a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, which was also felt as far away as Cyprus over 200 kilometers across the Mediterranean.
The Lebanese Red Cross put the death toll at above 100.
“Until now over 4,000 people have been injured and over 100 have lost their lives. Our teams are still conducting search and rescue operations in the surrounding areas,” a statement said Wednesday.
Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hasan said earlier that the toll was expected to rise.
“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,” he told Reuters.
George Kettani, the head of Lebanon’s Red Cross also told Al Mayadeen TV channel, “What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe,” adding, “There are victims and casualties everywhere.”
Aoun: Unsafe storing of ammonium nitrate ‘unacceptable’
In remarks published on the Presidency Twitter account, the Lebanese president said that it was “unacceptable” that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse for six years without safety measures.
He vowed that those responsible would face the “harshest punishments,” calling for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
President Aoun also visited the site of the explosion along with senior military officials on Wednesday morning.
Letters show Lebanese officials knew of danger
The cargo of ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon in September 2013, on board a Moldovan-flagged vessel sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.
The ship docked in the Lebanese capital after facing technical problems at sea and its dangerous cargo was offloaded and placed at Beirut port’s Hangar 12.
On June 27, 2014, then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi wrote a letter to an unnamed “Urgent Matters judge,” asking for a solution to the matter.
Over the next three years, customs officials reportedly sent at least five more letters and proposed three options, including exporting the ammonium nitrate, handing it over to the Lebanese Army, or selling it to the privately-owned Lebanese Explosives Company.
However, they received no reply to their letters.
On October 27, 2017, Badri Daher, the new Lebanese Customs Administration director, wrote to a new letter to a judge, urging him to come to a decision on the matter in view of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there.”
Diab: Those responsible will pay price
Separately, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised there would be accountability for the fatal incident at the “dangerous warehouse,” adding that “those responsible will pay the price.”
“Beirut is grieving… All of Lebanon is disaster-torn. Lebanon is going through a quite ordeal that could only be faced with national unity and solidarity among all Lebanese from all backgrounds and regions. We are going through a disaster that could only be overcome with determination and tenacity to face this serious challenge and its destructive consequences,” he said during a speech.
“I promise that this catastrophe will not go unpunished and those responsible will be held accountable.”
UNIFIL ship damaged, personnel wounded
Meanwhile, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) released a statement, saying one of its maritime task force ships docked in Beirut port was damaged and a number of naval peacekeepers were injured, some of them seriously, in the blast.
“UNIFIL is transporting the injured peacekeepers to the nearest hospitals for medical treatment,” the statement read.
It also noted that UNIFIL is assessing the situation and stands ready to provide assistance and support to the Lebanese government.
‘Wheat in Beirut’s port granaries unusable’
The explosion at Beirut’s largest port has destroyed silos that serve as the national grain reserve.
Lebanon imports up to 80 percent of its food needs and is particularly reliant on imports of soft wheat.
Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said that the wheat in Beirut’s port granaries cannot be used.
Lebanon will import wheat, but the country currently has enough wheat until it begins importing it, he told local media.