Thousands Injured in Giant Beirut Blast

Lebanon’s government says “highly explosive materials” were stored near blast scene.

A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital of Beirut.
A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. STR/AFP/Getty Images

A pair of explosions rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Tuesday, leaving at least 78 dead people and more than 4,000 injured, according to figures supplied by the country’s health minister. The cause of the blasts is yet to be determined, but Lebanese officials say it was accidental. Scenes of the damage were broadcast around the world, leading to an outpouring of grief, with several countries offering to assist Lebanon in its recovery efforts, including France, Iran, and the United States.

Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s internal security chief, said the ferocity of the blasts was likely caused by the nearby presence of ammonium nitrate, which he said the government had confiscated from a ship in the city’s port several years ago. Witnesses said they saw a cloud of orange-colored smoke coming from the site of the explosion, an occurrence consistent with explosions involving nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is often used in bomb-making.

According to the country’s National News Agency, Prime Minister Hassan Diab has declared Wednesday a nationwide day of mourning.

Despite the assessments given by Lebanese officials, some right-wing media outlets indirectly put the blame on the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, repeating reports that it housed some of its explosive material in the city. Twitter was also initially abuzz with talk of the group’s indirect involvement. In a statement, Hezbollah did not confirm or deny accusations that it was involved. “We extend our condolences to the Lebanese people over this national tragedy,” the statement read.

Israel, which has sparred with Hezbollah in recent weeks and has carried out attacks in Beirut before, deflected blame. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli official told the Associated Press that Israel “had nothing to do” with the explosion.

U.S. President Donald Trump departed from the line being followed by Lebanese officials, giving credence to rumors that the explosion was an intentional attack. He told reporters that U.S. military leaders “[seemed] to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”

The accident strains a health care system already under severe pressure from the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the Lebanese government reimposed a nationwide lockdown after an alarming spike in new COVID-19 cases. The rise of new cases and the resulting strain it has put on the country’s health care system seem to have rendered it unequipped to deal with Tuesday’s emergency. A Red Cross official said some of those injured had to be moved to hospitals in other parts of Lebanon because those in Beirut were at full capacity. To make matters worse, several of the city’s hospitals, including some of the country’s largest, were destroyed in the blast.

Tuesday’s events add to a barrage of crises Lebanon has faced in the last several months. A wave of anti-government protests rocked the country late last year, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and threatening to bring down the state’s entire ruling apparatus. Despite restrictions imposed by the national lockdown, demonstrations have continued, creating an almost untenable situation for the government.

Lebanon is also in the throes of an economic disaster. The Lebanese lira has plunged, losing between 85 to 90 percent of its value since September, which helped to fuel the widespread feelings of discontent that led to the anti-government protests. The resulting financial collapse has destroyed the country’s economy, leading to soaring inflation, unemployment, and poverty. On Monday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned amid the deepening financial crisis, warning that the government’s inability to stave off the crisis risked turning Lebanon into a “failed state.”

This is a developing story. More coverage to follow.

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty