A huge explosion in port warehouses near central Beirut killed more than 70 people, injured over 3000 and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground across the Lebanese capital.
Officials said they expected the death toll to rise further after the blast as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one Australian had been killed and Australia's embassy had been "impacted significantly" in the explosion. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said some embassy staff were hit by flying glass when the building's windows were blown out, ABC reported.
Lebanon's interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role and offered help.
"What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe," the head of Lebanon's Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen. "There are victims and casualties everywhere."
Hours after the blast, which struck shortly after 6pm local time, 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.
A security source said victims were taken for treatment outside the city because Beirut hospitals were packed with wounded. Ambulances from the north and south of the country and the Bekaa valley to the east were called in to help.
Stunning video shows explosions just minutes ago at Beirut port pic.twitter.com/ZjltF0VcTr— Borzou Daragahi (@borzou) August 4, 2020
The blast was so big that some residents in the city, where memories of heavy shelling during the 1975 to 1990 civil war live on, thought an earthquake had struck. Dazed, weeping and wounded people walked through streets searching for relatives.
"I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability," Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the nation.
"Those responsible will pay the price," he said in his televised address, adding that details about the "dangerous warehouse" would be made public.
The interior minister told Al Jadeed TV that ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port since 2014.
The US embassy in Beirut warned residents in the city about reports of toxic gases released by the blast, urging people to stay indoors and wear masks if available.
Smoke and fireball
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 up a white cloud and a fireball into the sky. Those filming the incident from high buildings 2km from the port were thrown backwards by the shock.
It was not immediately clear what caused the initial blaze on Wednesday that set off the blast.
Lebanon's Red Cross said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals.
The governor of Beirut port told Sky News a team of firefighters, who were battling the initial blaze, had "disappeared" after the explosion.
President Michel Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared. He said it was "unacceptable" that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for six years without safety measures.
The prime minister called for a day of mourning.
The explosion occurred three days before a UN-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.
Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on the same waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.
Israeli officials said Israel had nothing to do with the blast and said their country was ready to give humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon. Shi'ite Iran, the main backer of Hezbollah, also offered support, as did Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power.
Western countries including the United States, Britain and France also said they were ready to assist.
Images showed port buildings reduced to tangled masonry, devastating the main entry point to a country that relies on food imports to feed its population of more than 6 million.
It threatens a new humanitarian crisis in a nation that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and which is already grappling with economic meltdown under one of the world's biggest debt burdens.
Residents said glass was broken in neighbourhoods on Beirut's Mediterranean coast and inland suburbs several kms away. In Cyprus, a Mediterranean island 180 km across the sea from Beirut, residents heard the blast. One resident in Nicosia said his house and window shutters shook.