Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Australian government was “shocked and saddened” by the massive blast in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and that it would direct $2 million in humanitarian support to the country.
She confirmed one Australian had been killed in the devastating explosion. She also said the Australian Embassy had been “significantly” damaged and several staff wounded but “all were safe and accounted for”.
Lebanese rescue workers have been digging through the mangled wreckage of buildings on Wednesday looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across the city, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4000.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Lebanon and to those worried for friends and family,” she said in a statement.
“Australia and Lebanon have a strong relationship built on extensive community ties, with more than 230,000 Australians having Lebanese heritage.”
Officials said the toll was expected to rise after the blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material.
The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.
It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 160km away.
Ms Payne sent her condolences to the Australian victim’s friends and family. She announced the government would provide financial support to Lebanon.
“In the response to this disaster, Australia will direct $2 million in humanitarian support to Lebanon to help with the recovery from the devastating explosions in Beirut,” Ms Payne said.
“The funding will consist of $1 million each to trusted aid partners, the World Food Programme and the Red Cross movement, to help to ensure food, medical care and essential items are provided to those affected by this tragedy.”
She said embassy staff were working hard to help affected Australians.
“They are continuing to seek urgent advice from local authorities in relation to Australians in Lebanon,” she said.
“This initial humanitarian support will be drawn from the existing aid budget.”
Lebanon President Michel Aoun said 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
He told the nation the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment.”
An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying nothing was done” by committees and judges to order the removal of hazardous material.
Ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in Lebanon’s financial crisis, blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance.
“This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, said while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars.
The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people were killed and search efforts continued.
Tracing the missing
Relatives gathered at the cordon to Beirut port seeking information on missing relatives, Lebanon’s MTV footage showed.
The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea where rescue teams tried to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during the Tuesday evening rush hour.
The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.
Sara, a nurse in Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Centre, described scenes at her hospital after the blast as “like a slaughterhouse, blood covering the corridors and the lifts”.
Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.
“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake,” said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.
Like others, he blamed the political elite, “Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones,” he said, describing politicians as “thieves and looters” for driving Lebanon into economic crisis.
Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.
The US, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political change in Lebanon, also offered help. The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialised search and rescue teams.
Esther Han is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. She has covered state politics, health and consumer affairs.