BEIRUT, Lebanon - The world has been shocked by the severity of a huge blast which has rocked Beirut, killing scores of people, and injuring more than 5,000.
The Lebanese capital has not seen such a massive blast since the bombing that assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and twenty-one others in 2005.
Tuesday's blast in port warehouses storing highly explosive material in the centre of the city has killed at least 157 people. Scores of people are still missing and not accounted for. "What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe," the Lebanon Red Cross chief George Kettani told local media. "There are victims and casualties everywhere."
"Our teams are still conducting search and rescue operations in the surrounding areas," the Lebanese Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday.
Many people in Lebanon are reported as saying they thought there had been an earthquake, in light of the severity of the explosion.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun told reporters 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for 6 years at the port warehouses and described the tragedy as "unacceptable," implying it was an accident.
Coming on the eve of the verdict of the killing of Hariri, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if this latest blast was an accident.
The Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, designated a terrorist group by a number of countries including the U.S. and Israel, has been largely blamed for the Hariri attack, a claim Hezbollah vehemently denies. The verdict which was to be released on Friday follows the work of independent international investigators, which at first blamed Syria and locked up several Syrian intelligence officers for a number of years. Around 2008 they were all released, and the Special Tribunal switched its focus to Hezbollah. It was alleged four Hezbollah officials were involved, and they were all charged and put on trial in absentia. Court filings cast doubt on whether they were officials of Hezbollah. Through the proceedings it was then alleged they were members of the group, but by the end of the trials it was being inferred they merely supported Hezbollah.
On Tuesday as Lebanon, already reeling from an economic crisis, was being shaken by the ports explosion, reports attacking Hezbollah were being simultaneously released. 'Interactive maps reveal full extent of Hezbollah's global reach,' the lead story of a major Middle East newspaper was headlined on Tuesday. Surprisingly the story was being published, virtually as an exclusive because at the time no other media outlets were reporting it, by the UAE's biggest national newspaper, The National. Later in the day the paper published a second article on the same subject titled 'Five maps that show spread of Hezbollah activity.' The story promoted the launch of an interactive map purporting to reveal 'all the attacks, financing operations and plots by the terror group revealing for the first time its vast global reach.' The map has been the brainchild of former FBI agent Dr Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute, which, according to Wikipedia, has been described as a pro-Israel lobbying tool with major links to AIPAC.
Also Tuesday, The Jerusalem Post published a story with the headline 'Hezbollah looted Lebanon and it will cost $93b to bail it out - analysis.' The story describes Lebanon's economic woes, saying the economy is in a tailspin, that Lebanon may default on its bonds, and claims it is all being caused by Hezbollah.
The article is based on 'a new report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies,' which, according to Wikipedia, has been identified by several scholarly sources as a part of the Israel lobby in the U.S.
"Written by lawyer and economics writer James Rickards, with a foreword by FDD's chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, and senior vice-president for research Jonathan Schanzer, the new report presents a sobering picture of the challenges facing Lebanon. These are difficulties that are tied directly to the role of Hezbollah in looting the country and hijacking it. If a bailout doesn't take into account extracting concessions from Hezbollah or the role it plays in the country this "risks transferring billions to a global terrorist organization and perpetuating one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history," Schanzer and Dubowitz note," The Jerusalem Post article said.
Meantime on Fox News on Tuesday as the news of the explosion was coming out of Lebanon, a major news item was prominently displayed on the channel's website, headlined 'Hezbollah in the Spotlight - Shadowy group may be to blame for massive Beirut blast: sources. It leads to an article titled 'Beirut blasts likely accidental - but Hezbollah activities at the port under scrutiny.'
Over at the White House, President Donald Trump was confident the explosion in Beirut was the result of an attack.
"Let me begin by sending Americas deepest sympathies to the people of Lebanon, where reports indicate that many, many people were killed, hundreds more were very badly wounded in a large explosion in Beirut. Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families. The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon. I have a very good relationship with the people of Lebanon, and we will be there to help. It looks like a terrible attack," the president told repoetsr at a press briefing in the James Brady Press Room Tuesday night.
A reporter later asked: "You called this an attack. Are you confident that this was an attack and not an accident?"
Mr Trump replied: "Well, it would seem like it, based on the explosion. Ive met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a, some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a, seems to be, according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was a attack. It was a bomb of some kind. Yes."
(Photo credit: AFP).