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Beirut blast: Huge emergency operation to cope with Lebanon's 'national disaster'

Rescue operations continued through the night and into Wednesday morning in Beirut after two huge explosions devastated the area around the port, killing dozens of people, injuring thousands and destroying buildings across the Lebanese capital.

A first explosion was followed by a second blast which sent a huge orange fireball into the sky. It struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake and was felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilometres across the Mediterranean.

An official with the Lebanese Red Cross says at least 100 people were killed, AP reported. Earlier Lebanon's health ministry said at least 78 people had died and at least 4,000 injured. It's thought the numbers are almost certain to rise.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has declared a national day of mourning on Wednesday.

Hospitals already struggling with the country's coronavirus outbreak have been overwhelmed by the large number of injured people. Several hospitals were damaged in the blast. Lebanon's Red Cross has called for urgent blood donations.

Many people are believed to be missing and bodies are thought to be buried in the port area under debris. Firefighters backed by army helicopters battled into the night to put out flames.

The cause has not been confirmed but attention has turned to stored chemicals. Government ministers say it appeared that a large cache of ammonium nitrate in the port had detonated. Officials have said initial investigations suggested the blast came from explosive material that had been confiscated.

Chaotic scenes were reported in the aftermath of the explosion, which destroyed buildings around the port area, blew out the windows of others across the city and overturned cars. Injured people were seen staggering through the streets.

The disaster comes at a time when the country has been struggling with both the pandemic and a severe economic and financial crisis. The past year has seen protests against soaring unemployment and economic meltdown with many blaming government incompetence and corruption.

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