A drone picture shows the scene of the explosion at the port of Beirut © Hussein Malla/AP

Lebanon declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut and ordered the house arrest of anyone involved in storing volatile chemicals blamed for a massive blast that ripped through the capital, killing more than 135 people.

The cabinet took the decision as the number of injured climbed to 5,000 and scrutiny mounted over why the authorities allowed 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be stored at the city’s port for six years. 

Lebanese leaders have said initial investigations into Tuesday’s blast indicate that it was caused by the ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can also be used in bombs.

Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, said the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment”.

The information minister said the government had asked “military authorities” to place port officials involved with the chemicals under house arrest.

A survivor is carried out of rubble by rescue workers in Beirut on Wednesday
A survivor is carried out of rubble by rescue workers in Beirut on Wednesday © AP

The country’s leaders spoke as hospitals with blown-out windows were overwhelmed by casualties, with medics forced to treat patients in veterinary clinics and car parks, patients said.

Helicopters circled over shattered homes and offices while rescue workers combed through rubble to search for the missing. Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud said up to 300,000 people had lost their homes and that the authorities were working to give them food, water and shelter.

Hassan Hamad, health minister, said 135 people had been killed and 5,000 injured in comments carried by local media.

The blast has dealt a devastating blow to a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades.

Mr Aoun has said the ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port, which nestles up against the northern tip of the capital, without safety measures.

A fire at the port appeared to have triggered a huge secondary explosion on Tuesday. Two fires continued to burn at the site on Wednesday.

In comments that are likely to fuel public anger toward the authorities, Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI that customs officials had sent six documents to the judiciary warning that the ammonium nitrate posed a danger.

“We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why,” Mr Daher said.

Many Lebanese blame the ruling elite, which is perceived to be riddled with corruption, for the economic malaise and dysfunctional state.

Hassan Diab, the prime minister, has said the ammonium nitrate was stored in a “dangerous” warehouse at the port. 

Experts said there were strict regulations that were supposed to govern the bulk storage of ammonium nitrate. 

Map showing location of huge explosion that rocked Beirut

“There’s been lots of industry chatter . . . some are quite incredulous that such a potentially hazardous product was stored in the heart of a city,” said Julia Meehan, managing editor for fertilisers at ICIS, a market data agency specialising in petrochemicals and fertilisers.

Lebanese authorities seized an Africa-bound ship carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port in late 2013, according to legal reports at the time. The law firm prosecuting the case said the cargo had been unloaded into a warehouse.

US defence secretary Mark Esper said most people were putting the Beirut explosion down to an accident. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Mr Esper seemed to contradict President Donald Trump’s interpretation of events as an attack.

”[We’re] still getting information on what happened . . . most believe that it was an accident as reported,” said the Pentagon chief.

The blast has devastated Beirut’s port, a crucial artery for import-dependent Lebanon, a country enduring soaring food prices and rising poverty. Economists said data showed about three-quarters of Lebanon's imports enter via the port. 

The hangars that make up Beirut’s economic free zone were ripped apart in the blast, and a national grain silo was cracked open, spilling out its wheat.

Lebanon is one of the world’s most heavily indebted countries, and in March defaulted on $90bn of its obligations. The Lebanese pound has collapsed and inflation has risen to about 56 per cent, while the IMF forecasts that the economy will contract 12 per cent this year. 

In an economic recovery plan finalised in April, the government banked on receiving $10bn in international support, but fighting between rival political factions, which have long been blamed for failing to push through much-needed reforms, have stymied talks with the IMF.

“It’s a severe blow and it compounds what was already a very bad economic situation. The humanitarian consequences will be very alarming,” said Jason Tuvey, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, which forecasts that the economy will shrink by 30 per cent this year.

Mr Diab has appealed for international help. Countries, ranging from Qatar to the US and France, have pledged to send assistance. Emmanuel Macron, president of France, will travel to Lebanon on Thursday.

Previous chemical disasters

Tianjin, china (2015)

© Getty

A series of explosions that started at a warehouse for toxic chemicals in the northern Chinese port city led to 173 deaths, most of them firefighters and police, and left 800 injured.

The blasts ripped through an industrial area, destroying thousands of new cars, shipping containers and buildings and gouging out a gigantic crater. Economic losses were estimated at $1.1bn. Mismanagement and illegal storage of hazardous materials were blamed, with a court later sentencing 49 people to prison.

Toulouse, France (2001)

© Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Getty

An explosion at the AZF fertiliser factory 10 days after the 9/11 attacks left about 30 people dead and caused more than 2,000 casualties. The blast had the force of a 3.4-magnitude earthquake.

It was later discovered to have been the result of contaminating the ammonium nitrate with another compound used for cleaning swimming pool water. In 2017, a court found a subsidiary of oil company Total partly responsible and convicted the plant’s former manager.

Texas City, USA (1947)

© Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

A fire aboard the docked ship SS Grandcamp detonated its cargo of ammonium nitrate, sending fireballs into the sky and triggering a 15-foot tidal wave. 

One of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions, it was the deadliest industrial accident in US history, killing at least 581 people and injuring more than 5,000. 

A chain reaction of fires destroyed nearby chemical plants and oil storage facilities, with the scenes likened to the bombing of European cities in the second world war that had just ended. 

Oppau, Germany (1921)

© ullstein bild/Getty

The disaster happened when hundreds of tons of a fertiliser exploded. Some 561 lives were lost, about 2,000 people hurt and most of the town’s buildings decimated.

The blast was reportedly heard 350km away in Munich. The incident occurred during the routine use of small dynamite charges to loosen a hardened mixture of ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate in a silo.

Michael Pooler

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