Beirut blast: 'It was like an atomic bomb'

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Emergency declared as at least 135 killed, thousands hurt after explosions linked to ammonium nitrate flatten city's port area

BEIRUT: As people filmed thick smoke billowing towards the sky after an explosion in Lebanon's capital on Tuesday, another more massive blast erupted, sending shock waves across the city.

In its wake lay devastation across a large swathe. The port area, where the blasts occurred, was largely flattened as many buildings collapsed. Windows on buildings kilometres away were blown out.

Wrecked and overturned vehicles were strewn on the streets.

At least 135 lives were lost and more than 5,000 others injured, with many more feared trapped under rubble.

Beirut governor Marwan Abboud told a local radio station that more than 100 people remained missing, including several firefighters.

"Beirut has never gone through what it went through yesterday," he said.

Rescue operations were still ongoing yesterday, even as overwhelmed hospitals struggled to cope with the wounded.

Lebanon's Red Cross chief Georges Kettaneh told a local broadcaster: "What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe. There are victims and casualties everywhere."

Witnesses have described scenes of chaos and panic, The Guardian reported.

Ms Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired teacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades, said: "It was like an atomic bomb... All the buildings around here have collapsed. I'm walking through glass and debris everywhere in the dark."

The cause of the disaster is believed to be a fire that started at a port warehouse and spread to another warehouse, where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, seized from a ship six years ago, was stored.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical that is mainly used as fertiliser but can also be used to make explosives and bombs.

Reuters quoted an unidentified official source familiar with the findings of an initial investigation as saying there were years of inaction around the removal of the ammonium nitrate.

"It is negligence," the source said, adding that the issue came before several committees and judges and "nothing was done" to order the material be removed or disposed of.

Another source told Reuters that a team that inspected the material six months ago warned it could "blow up all of Beirut" if not removed.

President Michel Aoun, who confirmed the ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely, has vowed to act against those responsible.

He also declared a three-day mourning period and said the government would release 100 billion lira (S$90m) of emergency funds.

The government has declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers in the capital, reported the Associated Press.

It also confirmed earlier reports that the government was putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation into the ammonium nitrate issue.

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