A huge explosion in Beirut port devastated a large area of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, leaving 78 dead and some 3,000 injured in a blast that caused widespread damage.

Prime minister Hassan Diab described the explosion as a “catastrophe” and called for international support for Lebanon, saying Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. The country’s higher defence council declared Beirut a “disaster zone”.

Interior minister Mohamed Fahmi said that initial investigations suggested the explosion was caused by confiscated explosive material, according to local media. Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon’s customs authority, linked the explosion to ammonium nitrate being stored at the port, in comments to a local news channel.

Video footage on social media showed a very large explosion that appeared to be caused by a fire and sent vast columns of smoke across the city.

Neighbourhoods in the immediate area of the blast in north Beirut have been devastated, with balconies collapsed and cars destroyed. Local television stations reported that rescuers were trying to find people trapped under rubble as emergency sirens blared across the city.

Huge explosion rocks Beirut

Mr Diab suggested in a prime ministerial broadcast that a “dangerous warehouse that has been there [at the port] since 2014” was connected to the disaster.

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

Mr Diab said details about the warehouse would be made public.

“I will not pre-empt the investigations. At the moment, we are focusing on handling the disaster, pulling the martyrs out, and treating the wounded,” Mr Diab said, according to the Lebanon’s National News Agency. “But, I promise that this catastrophe will not go unpunished and those responsible will be held accountable.”

Buildings closest to the port of Beirut were devastated in the blast © WAEL HAMZEH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The blast comes as Lebanon is reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades and as its hospitals are trying to cope with a rising number of coronavirus cases. Also this week a jury will deliver a verdict on the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a massive car bomb in 2005 that shook the city.

The Lebanese Red Cross said that its phone lines had been jammed with emergency calls as 30 teams responded to the incident, and it called for urgent blood donations.

Photographs and videos posted on social media showed injured people streaming into hospitals, some in east Beirut districts far from the site of the blast.

The shockwave from the explosion smashed windows and caused doors to cave in within a radius of several kilometres, and the boom was heard in the mountains and in coastal cities at least 40km away. Reports said the state energy company’s tower block headquarters in east Beirut had been badly damaged.

Firefighters carry an injured casualty from the blast site at the port of Beirut © Hasan Shaban/Bloomberg

Donald Trump suggested that the explosion was a deliberate attack and not an accident. The US president said he had spoken to some of his top generals who believed that a bomb was responsible for the explosion. 

“I’ve met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that . . . this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event,” Mr Trump said at a White House press conference. “They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”

Mr Trump gave no further details. 

The Pentagon declined to comment on the president’s statement and referred questions to the White House.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, extended his condolences to all those affected. “We are closely monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this tragedy . . . We understand that the government of Lebanon continues to investigate its cause and look forward to the outcome of those efforts.”

A spokesperson for António Guterres, UN secretary-general, said the body was committed to supporting Lebanon and was actively assisting in the response to the explosion, in which several of its own personnel had been injured.

Officials in Israel, which in 2006 fought a month-long war with Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, said the Jewish state had no involvement in the explosion.

Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s foreign minister, told Israeli television that “we see no reason not to believe the reports coming out of Beirut about an accident”. 

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo and Katrina Manson in Washington

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