Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris.
An Associated Press photographer near the port saw people lying injured on the ground, and hospitals called for blood donations, but exact casualties were not immediately known.
Miles from the scene of the blasts, balconies were knocked down, ceilings collapsed and windows were shattered.
Online video showed a column of smoke rising from the port area from what appeared to be an initial explosion, followed by a massive blast that sent up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave over the city.
Lebanon’s state news agency NNA and two security sources said the blasts had occurred in the port area where there are warehouses housing explosives. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts or what kind of explosives were in the warehouses.
The explosions come at a time of tumult. Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis poses the most significant threat to the country since a devastating 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The highly indebted government is facing a rapid inflation, soaring unemployment and poverty, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
Dozens of Lebanese protesters tried to storm the Ministry of Energy on Tuesday, angered by prolonged power cuts as the country grapples with the crippling economic crisis.
Security forces pushed back against the angry protesters, chasing away some who breached the ministry perimeter. Scuffles ensued as protesters pushed the metal barricade and said they plan to set up a sit-in at the ministry.
For decades, the country has struggled with power cuts and a huge public debt for the national electricity company, which racks up a deficit of nearly $2 billion a year.
But rationing has increased since June, and became so severe that residents reported only a couple of hours of electricity per day in some areas.
Lebanon’s problems are rooted in years of mismanagement.
Tensions heightened between Hezbollah, Israel
On the political front, there has been heightened tension following a recent Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria and anticipation that the militant Lebanese group would retaliate.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned Hezbollah and others after Israeli forces said they thwarted an infiltration attempt from Syria by suspected militants.
The Israeli military announced late Monday that it had struck targets in Syria after the militants tried to plant explosives in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israel struck the four suspects, who were believed to have been killed.
Netanyahu, who toured a military base on Tuesday, said Israel would not hesitate to take further action.
“We hit a cell and now we hit the dispatchers. We will do what is necessary in order to defend ourselves. I suggest to all of them, including Hezbollah, to consider this,” he said.
Tweet from CBC News contributor Rebecca Collard:
Huge explosion in Beirut now. My office… <a href=”https://t.co/jx8wuKPXf5″>pic.twitter.com/jx8wuKPXf5</a>
Last week, Israel also said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.
Israel considers Hezbollah to be its most immediate threat. Since battling Israel to a stalemate during a month-long war in 2006, Hezbollah has gained more battlefield experience fighting alongside the Syrian government in that country’s bloody civil war.