Scores dead, thousands injured in Beirut blast

(Updated with new information on death toll and extent of the damage).

A huge blast in the Lebanese capital Beirut on Tuesday killed at least 100 people and injured more than 4,000.

Footage online showed smoke pluming from a fire at the city’s port, followed by an explosion and a huge mushroom cloud that has caused severe damage to buildings across the city.

The number of casualties has overwhelmed hospitals in Beirut already struggling to cope with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Lebanese officials have blamed the blast on highly explosive materials stored in a warehouse at the city’s port for six years. An investigation is under way to find the trigger for the explosion, the BBC said.

President Michel Aoun tweeted it was "unacceptable" that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had ben stored unsafely at the port.

Aoun announced a three-day mourning period and said the government would release $66 million of emergency funds. He said a two week state of emergency should be declared.

Local media claimed that the number of casualties is much higher than the official figures announced by authorities. People are trapped under the debris as rescue workers try to reach them.

Beirut's city governor Marwan Abboud on Wednesday said up to 300,000 people have lost their homes and authorities are working on providing them with food, water and shelter, Al Jazeera reported. Abboud said the damage could range from $3 billion to $5 billion.

A witness described the first explosion as deafening, and video footage showed wrecked cars, debris strewn streets, and devastated and damaged buildings.

"All the buildings around here have collapsed. I'm walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark," one witness near the port told AFP news agency.

The blast was heard on the island of Cyprus, 240 km away in the eastern Mediterranean.

The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon, with a mounting economic crisis reigniting old political divisions. 

Tensions are also high ahead of Friday's verdict in a trial over the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri - who lives near the area of the explosion - is said to be unharmed, Anadolu news agency reported. However, nearby buildings, including Al Hariri's residence and Beirut’s International Airport suffered major damage.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that those responsible for the incident will be brought to account.

Describing the the incident as a "disaster", Diab urged all friendly countries to provide emergency assistance to the country.

Israeli officials, who spoke to local media on condition of anonymity, denied any Israeli involvement in the blast, saying it could have been an accident, Anadolu said.

Sources close to Hezbollah denied claims that the blast was an attack on their weapons depots by Israel.

U.S. President Donald Trump fuelled confusion in the aftermath of the explosion by referring to it as “an attack” and said that that U.S. generals had told him “it was a bomb of some kind”.

But two US officials, speaking to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said it was not clear from where Trump was receiving his intelligence and that initial information did not appear to show that the explosion was an attack.

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President Aoun assembled the High Defence Council at the Baabda Presidential Palace in the capital following the explosion, and instructed the armed forces to conduct patrols in districts across the city, Anadolu news agency reported the Lebanese Presidency as saying in a statement.

The Guardian reported on Wednesday that blasts destroyed wheat in the port’s granaries, prompting fears of an imminent food crisis across a country already suffering bread shortages and paralysed by an economic meltdown and COVID-19.

Lebanon imports about 90 percent of its wheat - used for making the country’s staple flatbread - with the vast majority coming through the destroyed port.