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Beirut explosion: death toll rises to 137 as army takes control of site

The death toll from a massive blast at Beirut’s port has risen again to 137, as the Lebanese army took control of the site on the first day of a two-week state of emergency.

The new casualty figures on Thursday morning include at least 5,000 injured and a health ministry spokesman said dozens were still missing. “This toll is not final,” he said.

As volunteers worked with the army to clean up shattered streets, buildings and hospitals, the government said it had formed an investigation committee to look into the explosion, which appears to have been set off by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port since 2014.

Q&A

What is ammonium nitrate, the chemical blamed for the blast in Beirut?

Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.

It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense. However, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve.

While ammonium nitrate can in fact put out a fire, if the chemical itself is contaminated, for example with oil, it becomes highly explosive.

Helen Sullivan and Tom Phillips

Lebanese officials have started blaming each other for leaving the highly explosive substance sitting so close to residential neighbourhoods for six years. The ammonium nitrate was taken from a ship that docked in Beirut in 2013 and was apparently abandoned by its Russian owner and mostly Ukrainian crew.

Badri Daher, the director general of Lebanese customs, said on Wednesday his office had sent six letters to the country’s judiciary urging them to deal with the chemicals either by exporting the load, reselling it or giving it to the army.

An unspecified number of port officials have been ordered to be placed under house arrest pending the investigation, which is scheduled to take five days. It will report to the national cabinet, which will refer its findings to the judiciary.

Amnesty International was among the organisations calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances leading up to the explosion.

“Whatever may have caused the explosion, including the possibility of a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, Amnesty is calling for an international mechanism to be promptly set up to investigate how this happened,” said Julie Verhaar, the group’s acting secretary general.

Protests have been planned for central Beirut on Thursday afternoon as residents of the capital seethed at a disaster that appears to have been foreseeable and frequently warned about.

One one shattered balcony, someone hung a thin noose along with the sign, “Whose heads will be hung?” Lebanese social media was trending with the hashtag “Hang up the nooses”, as rage threatened to boil over in the grief-stricken city.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut on Thursday morning, the first world leader to visit in the wake of the disaster. His office said he would head straight to the blast site. He is expected to call for international aid to rebuild Beirut but also press for changes to the political system – a major hurdle to receiving billions of dollars of aid to alleviate one of the worst financial crises in modern Lebanese history.

“For the president, it’s a matter of showing that France is there – that is its role – and that he believes in Lebanon,” the presidential palace said. “The visit is also an opportunity to lay down the foundations for a pact for the reconstruction of Lebanon, binding for all, that will limit conflicts, offer immediate aid and open up a long-term perspective.”

French aircraft were among several including from Turkey, Germany, Gulf countries and the World Food Programme to land in Beirut since Tuesday, bringing rescuers, medical supplies and equipment.

Tuesday’s explosion echoed another blast 15 years ago in which the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb not far from the port. An international court trying four men accused of Hariri’s assassination and killing 21 others with him was supposed to give its long-awaited verdict on Friday.

But the court outside The Hague said it was delaying the announcement “out of respect for the countless victims of the devastating explosion that shook Beirut on 4 August, and the three days of public mourning in Lebanon,” its registry said in a statement.

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