Massive blast at port rocks Lebanese capital

A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut Tuesday evening local time, shattering windows in surrounding neighborhoods and wounding hundreds of people, witnesses reported. At least ten people have been killed, according to Reuters. 

Residents have posted photos and videos, which have not been independently confirmed by NBC, to social media showing a mushroom-like cloud and enormous smoke plumes rising above the city from Beirut’s port area. The cause of the explosion is not yet clear, and no one has claimed responsibility.

A second blast took place near the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. CNBC’s Hadley Gamble confirmed in a phone call with Hariri that he is unharmed. 

While it is not clear what was in the warehouses at the site of the explosion, Lebanon’s internal security chief was quoted by Reuters as saying that the area was housing “highly explosive material, not explosives.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted that he has called the Supreme Defense Council for an emergency meeting.

An Israeli government official told CNBC that “Israel had nothing to do with the incident.”

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020.

ANWAR AMRO | AFP | Getty Images

Lebanese health minister Hamad Hasan said there was a “large number of wounded” in the port area blast, according to local news station LBC. 

Witnesses told CNBC that the explosion had taken out all the windows in the surrounding area, and described numerous injured and bloodied people walking around “in a daze.” Local media footage showed people trapped underneath rubble.

The Lebanese Red Cross said that hundreds of people have been rushed to hospitals, and tweeted an “urgent call for blood donations” at its transfusion centers across Lebanon. 

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, posted a photo on Twitter of shattered glass with the caption: “My office at home – explosion near PM Hariri.” 

The explosion comes ahead of a long-awaited UN tribunal verdict on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of Saad Hariri, who was killed in a car bomb in 2005. The four suspects in the trial are all members of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia paramilitary and political group widely seen as the most powerful political party in Lebanon. The suspects deny any role in Hariri’s death. The U.S. designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. 

People walk at scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020.

ANWAR AMRO | AFP | Getty Images

A Pentagon spokesperson told CNBC: “DoD is aware of the explosion in Beirut and greatly concerned for the apparent loss of life from such destruction. We are actively monitoring developments but have nothing to offer regarding the cause of the explosion nor its aftermath.”

A senior Trump administration official said, “We have seen these reports and are following the situation closely.” 

This is the last thing crisis-hit Lebanon needs

The Middle Eastern country of 6.8 million was mired in crisis before Tuesday’s explosions — and well before the coronavirus pandemic hit, too.

Lebanon is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history, with its banking system under worse strain than during the country’s bloody 1975-1990 civil war. Crippling debt, a currency in free fall, skyrocketing unemployment and entrenched corruption by political elites have triggered widespread and enduring social unrest.

Daily power outages and a nationwide pollution problem preceded, and now worsen, the current public health crisis. Popular protests erupted across the country last October demanding the removal of corrupt politicians and an overhaul of the government, forcing then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign.

The protests, initially peaceful, were seen by many inside and out of the country as a sign of hope for an improved future. But since then, conditions have only worsened, with the pandemic shattering business and tourism for the country and continued financial mismanagement eviscerating the value of the Lebanese lira. The currency has lost some 90% of its value since September, meaning residents are now struggling to afford food and basic goods. People who had saved their money in lira have seen their life savings wiped out, and those with funds in dollars cannot access them. Lebanon’s severe shortage of dollars had led banks to impose strict restrictions on withdrawals.

—CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report.