BEIRUT: Lebanon's government Wednesday declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut, a day after a devastating explosion at Beirut's port turned the capital into a disaster zone, killing 135 people and injuring 5,000, according to Health Minister Hamad Hassan.
The state of emergency will be overseen by the Lebanese Army.
Cabinet also agreed to place under house arrest all Beirut port officials who had been overseeing storage and security since 2014. The number of officials who face house arrest remains clear.
Also Wednesday, the stricken nation observed a day of mourning for the victims of the explosion, with with the Lebanese flag flying at half-mast at all state institutions.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would visit Lebanon Thursday to meet with political figures. He is also set to meet with the French government Wednesday to coordinate the country's aid to Lebanon.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said he would propose that the international community also mobilize humanitarian aid for Lebanon.
For his part, President Michel Aoun vowed to impose severe punishments on all those at fault for the devastating blast that rocked Lebanon's capital.
“We are determined to carry on with investigations and uncover the details of what happened as quickly as possible, hold officials and those at fault accountable and impose the most severe punishment on them,” Aoun said during the emergency Cabinet session at Baabda Palace.
Aoun added that the results of the investigations carried out would be made fully transparent.
He also appealed to the international community to speed up assistance to Lebanon in order to support hospitals and afflicted families, and to restore destroyed buildings and homes, especially since Lebanon is going through an unprecedented economic crisis.
No individual from the port's Customs department or any responsible politicians have been questioned to date, local media reported.
Rescue workers dug through the rubble overnight looking for survivors of the massive explosion that devastated many parts of Beirut.
The blast at port warehouses storing highly explosive material was probably the most powerful ever in Beirut, already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections. It was heard across the country and even as far as Syria and Cyprus.
Aoun said that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
Officials did not say what caused the blaze that set off the blast. Local media reported that it had been set off by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.
"What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe," the head of Lebanon's Red Cross George Kettani told a local broadcaster. "There are victims and casualties everywhere."
Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6 p.m. (15:00 GMT), a fire still blazed in the port district, casting an orange glow across the night sky as helicopters hovered and ambulance sirens sounded across the capital.
Some residents thought an earthquake had struck. Hundreds of families abandoned their badly damaged homes and spent the night at friends and relatives.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the stream of casualties, some even treating wounded in nearby car parks and streets.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the "dangerous warehouse," adding that "those responsible will pay the price." He appealed for help from "friendly and brotherly states."
Initial estimates of the cost of the damage, which flattened the vital port, was thought to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told AFP that around 300,000 had been left homeless as a result of the blast, and the damage, which he estimated amounted to some $3 billion, extended to over half the capital.
A Red Cross official said the death toll had risen overnight to over 100 with more than 4,000 wounded. Abboud had told a local radio station that more than 100 people remained missing, including several firefighters.
"Beirut has never gone through what it went through [Tuesday]," Abboud said.
Health Minister Hamad Hasan had told Reuters at around midnight that 78 people were killed and nearly 4,000 injured in the explosion.
"There are many people missing. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity," he added.
He told local media Wednesday that the country's health sector was suffering from a lack of medical supplies and hospital beds to be able tend to those injured by the blast.
According to a Red Cross statement, the organization's ambulances transported more than 1,600 wounded people.
Footage of the explosion shared by residents on social media showed a column of smoke rising from the port, followed by an enormous blast, sending a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2 kilometers from the port were thrown backward by the shock.
Bleeding people were seen running and shouting for help through clouds of smoke and dust in streets littered with wreckage from damaged buildings, flying debris, and wrecked cars and furniture.
The explosion also destroyed silos of wheat stored at the port. Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told local media there was a need for safe storage for wheat that would last Lebanon three months. Lebanon’s current’s wheat reserve will last for less than a month, he warned.
The port needs at least six months of reparations
France announced it would send two military planes to Lebanon Wednesday, with around 55 rescue and search experts aboard, in addition to 15 tons of sanitary equipment and mobile hospitals with the capacity to treat 500 people.
A Qatari plane carrying aid also arrived at Beirut aiport. The Tunisian president also sent military planes carrying food and medical supplies to Lebanon.
Around a dozen emergency personnel will also be sent to Lebanon from France, to help overwhelmed hospitals in Beirut.
Israeli officials said their country, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, had nothing to do with Tuesday's blast.
At a White House briefing, US President Donald Trump indicated that the explosion was a possible attack, but two US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said initial information contradicted Trump's view.