Two massive explosions hit Beirut on Tuesday, leaving many injured and killing hundreds of people, strewing devastation across multiple neighborhoods and shattering windows for miles around.
The cause of the late afternoon blast was vague, however, senior officials said it appeared that flammable materials stored in a warehouse had caught fire. An earlier, smaller explosion had apparently ignited a fire, then came two secondary blasts, propelling a vast mushroom cloud of pink and yellow smoke over the city.
The casualty toll rose through the evening. A report quoted Health Minister Hamad Hassan as saying as many as 50 may have been killed and over 2,000 injured. Reuters had however reported the death toll to at least 30.
The explosion coincides with mounting tensions between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which maintains a facility at the port and has long been accused by U.S. officials of using it to smuggle weapons into the country. The explosion follows a series of mysterious blasts at Shiite militia storage sites in Iraq last year that Iraqi and Israeli officials have said Israel was responsible for, and more recently a string of similarly unexplained explosions at military sites and power stations in Iran.
An Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, denied that Israel had any role in Beirut explosion. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian aid, as well as immediate emergency assistance, via international intermediaries because Israel and Lebanon are in a state of war and have no contact.
In a statement offering condolences to families of the dead and injured, Hezbollah did not apportion blame. It called the incident a “huge national tragedy” and urged Lebanese to unite to overcome the ordeal.
There were many indications the blast may have been a tragic accident. Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi said it appeared stocks of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used in bombmaking, had ignited.