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Devastation After Massive Beirut Blast 08/05 06:32

   Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a 
day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across the Lebanese capital, 
killing at least 100 people, wounding thousands and leaving entire city blocks 
flooded with glass and rubble.

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation 
on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across the 
Lebanese capital, killing at least 100 people, wounding thousands and leaving 
entire city blocks flooded with glass and rubble.

   Smoke was still rising from the port, where a towering building of silos was 
half destroyed, spilling out mounds of grain. Hangars around it were completely 
toppled. Much of the downtown area was littered with damaged vehicles and 
debris that had rained down from the shattered facades of buildings.

   An official with the Lebanese Red Cross said at least 100 people were killed 
and more than 4,000 were wounded. George Kettaneh said the toll could rise 
further.

   It was unclear what caused the blast, which appeared to have been triggered 
by a fire and struck with the force of an earthquake. It was the most powerful 
explosion ever seen in the city, which was split in half by the 1975-1990 civil 
war and has endured conflicts with neighboring Israel and periodic bombings and 
terror attacks.

   Scores of people were missing, with relatives pleading on social media for 
help locating loved ones. An Instagram page called "Locating Victims Beirut" 
sprang up with photos of missing people, and radio presenters read the names of 
missing or wounded people throughout the night. Many residents moved in with 
friends or relatives after their apartments were damaged and treated their own 
injuries because hospitals were overwhelmed.

   Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis 
that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its health system is 
confronting a coronavirus surge, and there were concerns the virus could spread 
further as people flooded into hospitals.

   There was no evidence the explosion was an attack. Instead, many Lebanese 
blamed it on decades of corruption and poor governance by the entrenched 
political class that has ruled the tiny Mediterranean country since the civil 
war.

   Saint George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in 
Beirut which had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission 
Wednesday after suffering major damage. A physician who identified himself as 
Dr. Emile said 16 staff and patients, including four nurses, died in the blast. 
He declined to give his last name out of privacy concerns.

   The blast also wounded a number of U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the area. 
Bangladesh said 21 members of its Navy were wounded, one critically. Italy, one 
of the top contributors to the UNIFIL mission, said one of its soldiers was 
wounded.

   Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told a local TV station that it appeared 
the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium 
nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse ever since it was confiscated from 
a cargo ship impounded in 2013.

   Explosives experts and video footage suggested the ammonium nitrate may have 
been ignited by a fire at what appeared to be a nearby warehouse containing 
fireworks.

   Ammonium nitrate is a common ingredient in fertilizer as well as explosives. 
It was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 
2,180 kilograms (4,800 pounds) of fertilizer and fuel oil ripped through a 
federal building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more.

   Security forces cordoned off the port area on Wednesday as a bulldozer 
entered to help clear away debris. A young man begged troops to allow him to 
enter and search for his father, who has been missing since the blast occurred. 
He was directed to a port official who wrote down his details.

   In Beirut's hard-hit Achrafieh district, civil defense workers and soldiers 
were working on locating missing people and clearing the rubble. At least one 
man was still pinned under stones from an old building that had collapsed. 
Volunteers hooked him up to an oxygen tank to help him breathe while others 
tried to free his leg.

   The blast severely damaged numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving 
large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their 
jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The 
explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly 
all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

   Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, appealed for 
international aid, saying: "We are witnessing a real catastrophe." He 
reiterated his pledge that those responsible for the disaster will pay the 
price, without commenting on the cause.

   There is also the issue of food security in Lebanon, a tiny country already 
hosting over 1 million Syrians displaced by that country's nearly decade-long 
civil war.

   Drone footage shot Wednesday by The Associated Press showed that the blast 
tore open a cluster of towering grain silos, dumping their contents into the 
debris and earth thrown up by the blast. Some 80% of Lebanon's wheat supply is 
imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

   Estimates suggest some 85% of the country's grain was stored at the 
now-destroyed silos.

   Lebanon's state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of 
economy and trade, as saying that all the wheat stored at the facility had been 
"contaminated" and couldn't be used. But he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat 
for its immediate needs and would import more.

   Several countries have pledged aid in the aftermath of the blast, with even 
Israel offering humanitarian assistance. The two countries have been in 
conflict for decades, and Israel fought a 2006 war with the Hezbollah militant 
group.

   Lebanon's economic crisis is rooted in decades of systemic corruption by 
political factions that exploit public institutions for the benefit of their 
supporters. Decades after the civil war, residents endure frequent power 
outages and poor public services.

   Lebanese have held mass protests calling for sweeping political change since 
last autumn but few of their demands have been met as the economic situation 
has steadily worsened.

   Beirut's port and the customs authority are notoriously corrupt. Like nearly 
all public institutions, they are controlled by Lebanon's political factions, 
including Hezbollah.

 
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