Beirut (AFP), Aug 15 – A fuel tank blast in Lebanon Sunday killed 28 people and left nearly 80 others injured, authorities and medics said, scalding a crowd that was clamouring for gasoline in the crisis-hit country.
The night-time tragedy in the country’s remote north overwhelmed medical facilities and heaped new misery on a nation already beset by an economic crisis and severe fuel shortages that have crippled hospitals and caused long power cuts.
It revived bitter memories of an enormous explosion at Beirut port in August last year that killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital.
An adviser to the health ministry said the death toll from the blast in Al-Tleil village, in the Akkar region, had climbed to 28. The Lebanese Red Cross said 79 others were injured.
The military said a fuel tank that “had been confiscated by the army to distribute to citizens” exploded just before 2:00 am (2300 GMT). Soldiers were among those hurt.
The army began raiding gas stations Saturday to curb hoarding by suppliers following a central bank decision to scrap fuel subsidies.
The official National News Agency (NNA) said the blast followed scuffles between “residents that gathered around the container to fill up gasoline” overnight.
Hospitals in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest regions near the border with Syria, and in the northern port city of Tripoli said they had to turn away many of the injured because they were ill-equipped to treat severe burns.
“The corpses are so charred that we can’t identify them,” said Yassine Metlej, an employee at a Akkar hospital where seven bodies and dozens of injured were brought.
– ‘Lost their faces’ –
“Some have lost their faces, others their arms,” Metlej told AFP.
Health Minister Hamad Hassan said he was in contact with several countries to evacuate serious burn cases abroad, including Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan.
Unable to seek treatment in Akkar, Ismail al-Sheikh, 23, who sustained burns to his arms and legs, was driven by his sister Marwa to the Geitawi hospital in Beirut, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away.
“At night, we were informed that the army was distributing gasoline… so people flocked to fill it in plastic containers… straight from the tank,” Marwa told AFP.
“Most of the people who were there said that someone had thrown a lighter on the floor,” causing a fire that sparked the explosion, she said.
Other witnesses claimed that shots were fired before the blast.
The explosion was widely seen as a direct consequence of official negligence that had pushed the country deeper into free fall.
“The dead are victims of a careless state,” Marwa told AFP.
Lebanon, hit by a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the 1850s, has been grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and dire fuel shortages.
Central bank governor Riad Salameh said last Wednesday the lender cannot afford to fund fuel subsidies due to dwindling foreign reserves, and accused importers of hoarding fuel to sell it at higher prices on the black market or in Syria.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day, while several hospitals have warned they may have to close due to power outages.
The American University of Beirut Medical Centre, the country’s top private hospital, said it would close by Monday morning if it doesn’t secure diesel to power generators, risking hundreds of lives.
– Search for missing –
President Michel Aoun ordered a probe into the blast and chaired an emergency meeting of the defence council, his office said.
The meeting agreed to provide hospitals with the diesel they desperately need to power generators, said a statement.
The council also called on the government to task security forces with monitoring the storage and distribution of fuel to prevent further incidents.
At the blast scene, soldiers and rescuers swept the area to search for the missing, as relatives gathered in anguish, state media said.
Angry Akkar residents also raided and torched a vacant house believed to belong to the owner of the plot where Sunday’s explosion took place, the NNA reported.
The Akkar explosion comes less than two weeks after Lebanon marked the first anniversary of the Beirut port blast.
Despite the economic crisis, political wrangling has delayed the formation of a new government after the last cabinet resigned in the wake of that blast.
International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but the funds remain contingent on a new government being formed to spearhead reforms, and on talks restarting with the International Monetary Fund.
Former premier Saad Hariri blamed Sunday’s explosion on “neglect” by the authorities and called on the president and other officials to resign.
Russia called for a “thorough investigation” into the blast and Jordan urged a “comprehensive plan” that can usher Lebanon into safety.