A large blast in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, has killed at least 70 people and injured more than 4,000 others, the health minister says.
Videos show smoke billowing from a fire, then a mushroom cloud following the blast at the city’s port.
Officials are blaming highly explosive materials stored in a warehouse for six years.
President Michel Aoun tweeted it was “unacceptable” that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored unsafely.
An investigation is under way to find the exact trigger for the explosion. Lebanon’s Supreme Defence Council said those responsible would face the “maximum punishment” possible.
Hospitals are said to be overwhelmed and many buildings have been destroyed.
President Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government would release 100 billion lira (£50.5m; $66m) of emergency funds.
A BBC journalist at the scene reported dead bodies and severe damage, enough to put the port of Beirut out of action.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab called it a catastrophe and said those responsible must be held to account.
He spoke of a “dangerous warehouse” which had been there since 2014, but said he would not pre-empt the investigation.
Local media showed people trapped beneath rubble. A witness described the first explosion as deafening, and video footage showed wrecked cars and blast-damaged buildings.
“All the buildings around here have collapsed. I’m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark,” one witness near the port told AFP news agency.
The blast was heard 240km (150 miles) away on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.
The explosion comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon, with an economic crisis reigniting old divisions. Tensions are also high ahead of Friday’s verdict in a trial over the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
‘Glass going down from all over the building’
Hadi Nasrallah, eyewitness speaking to the BBC
I saw the fire, but I didn’t yet know there was going to be an explosion. We went inside. Suddenly I lost my hearing because apparently I was too close. I lost my hearing for a few seconds, I knew something was wrong.
And then suddenly the glass just shattered all over the car, the cars around us, the shops, the stores, the buildings. Just glass going down from all over the building.
Literally all over Beirut, people were calling each other from different areas kilometres away and they were experiencing the same thing: broken glass, buildings shaking, a loud explosion.
Actually we were shocked because usually when it happens, just one area will experience those happenings after an explosion, but this time it was all of Beirut, even areas outside of Beirut.
Sunniva Rose, journalist
“Driving into Beirut early evening when it was still light, it was absolute chaos. The streets were literally covered in glass. It’s hard for ambulances to go through – there’s bricks, cement slabs. Houses have collapsed.
“When I got to the port it had been closed off by the army. The army said to stay away in case there was a second explosion.
“There was still smoke going up into the sky late into the evening. The whole city was black. It was very hard to walk around, people were covered in blood. I saw an 86-year-old woman being treated by a doctor who had just run out of his home with a first aid kit. Cars were entirely smashed by rocks. These old-style houses with big cuts of rock had just fallen down on the street.
“It’s pandemonium in my own flat, all the glass is shattered. The extent of the damage is extreme. Even in a mall 2km away – the whole facade was shattered.”
What is ammonium nitrate?
Ammonium nitrate has a number of different uses, but the two most common are as an agricultural fertiliser and as an explosive.
It is highly explosive when it comes into contact with fire – and when it explodes, ammonium nitrate can release toxic gases including nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas.
Because it’s so flammable there are strict rules on how to store ammonium nitrate safely – but among the requirements are that the storage site needs to be thoroughly fire-proofed, and there can’t be any drains, pipes or other channels in which ammonium nitrate could build up, creating an additional explosion hazard.
How have other countries reacted?
Lebanon’s prime minister also called for international help: “I make an urgent appeal to friendly and brotherly countries… to stand by Lebanon and to help us heal our deep wounds,” Hassan Diab said.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking. All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident.
“The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected.”
US President Donald Trump sent his deepest sympathies after what he called “a terrible attack”, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered assistance, tweeting: “We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy.”
France said it was sending aid and resources to Lebanon.
Iran would “render assistance in any way necessary” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, while Saudi Arabia expressed its full solidarity with Lebanon.
Israel said in a statement that it had “approached Lebanon through international security and diplomatic channels and has offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian assistance”.
The German foreign ministry said the blast had been felt at its embassy in the city.
“We cannot for the moment exclude German nationals figuring among the dead and wounded,” it said in a statement.
What’s the situation in Lebanon?
Lebanon is experiencing political turmoil, with street demonstrations against the government’s handling of the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Many blame the ruling elite who have dominated politics for years and amassed their own wealth while failing to carry out the sweeping reforms necessary to solve the country’s problems. People have to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water and limited public healthcare.
There has also been tension on the border with Israel, which said last week that it had thwarted an attempt by Hezbollah to infiltrate Israeli territory. But a senior Israeli official has told the BBC that “Israel has no connection” to the Beirut blast.
The blast happened close to the scene of the huge car bombing which killed ex-PM Hariri. Tuesday’s blast also came days before the long-awaited verdict in the trial at a special court in the Netherlands of four men accused of orchestrating the attack.
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A Member Of Sage Has Claimed The “Trivial” 10pm Curfew Will Have Little Impact On Slowing Coronavirus Infections
2 min read
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage advisory group, has said the impact on the 10pm curfew will be trivial as he warned current measures do not go “anywhere near far enough”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme in a personal capacity, the leading epidemiologist said: “I think it’s welcome that we’ve done something. I think working from home if you can is certainly a good idea.”
But, commenting on plans requiring all pubs and restaurants to close earlier from Thursday, he said that “nobody goes to a restaurant after 10pm anyway”.
“I think that’s fairly trivial […] it’ll have very small impact on the epidemic,” he added.
“Overall, I don’t think that those measures have gone anywhere near far enough. In fact, I don’t even think the measures in Scotland have gone far enough.”
Meanwhile, The Times suggests that other scientific advisers have also warned that the 10pm curfew will have little effect.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) reportedly did not model the effect of a 10pm curfew, and the behavioural science sub-group was also not consulted on the change.
Key members of the committee are said to have told the government there is no evidence that the curfew would be effective.
Prof Edmunds continued: “If you think about the measures we put in place back in March […] We think of the lockdown as a measure but actually it really was a combination of many, many different measures […] A huge raft of measures, actually single measures, all came in at once.
“And they reduced the reproduction number from about somewhere in the region about 2.7 to about 0.7. So, each one of those individual measures if you break it up is going to have quite a small effect actually on the overall reproduction number…
“In order to stop the epidemic from going any further we have to put a large range of measures in place, a very large range of measures in place.”
The Sage member was also critical of the speed at which the government brought in new measures, claiming future restrictions will likely “be too late again” to stop cases rising.
“We’ll have the worst of both worlds. Because then, to slow the epidemic and bring it back down again… will mean putting the brakes on the epidemic for a very long time.
“And I think that is what we had to do in March, because we didn’t react quick enough in March. And so I think that I think we haven’t learned from our mistake back then and we’re unfortunately, about to repeat it.”
Coronavirus: Health chief hails Africa’s fight against Covid-19
The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control has praised African states for managing to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Africa has seen about 1.4 million cases, and 34,000 deaths since March.
These figures are far lower than those in Europe, Asia or the Americas, with reported cases continuing to decline.
Early interventions played a crucial role in curbing the virus’ spread, John Nkengasong told the BBC’s Newsday programme.
He described as “false” suggestions that cases and deaths in Africa were significantly under-reported.
“We may not have been picking up all the cases, just like in other parts of the world… but we are not seeing people around the continent falling dead on the streets or mass burials going on,” Dr Nkengasong said.
All African states introduced a series of measures to tackle the virus as soon as the first cases were reported in March. Many, including South Africa, introduced nationwide lockdowns, but others such as Ethiopia opted for less strict measures.
Dr Nkengasong, however, attributed the low number to a “joint continental effort”, which focused on “scaling up testing and following up contact tracing and very importantly masking”, or the wearing of face masks.
“In many countries, including Ethiopia where I live, if you go to the streets of Addis Ababa you will see there is almost 100% masking,” he added.
What other reasons did he give?
Africa’s relatively young population also contributed to the low number of cases, Dr Nkengasong said.
Furthermore, the emphasis on community-driven initiatives, and experience in contact-tracing from fighting diseases like Ebola, had helped countries to tackle the virus, he said.
“This virus is in the community, and without a strong community response and strong community engagement there is no chance we can fight it,” Dr Nkengasong added.
Warning over second wave
Analysis by Anne Soy, BBC News, Nairobi
The drop in the number of Covid-19 cases on the continent is mainly driven by South Africa, which accounts for nearly half of Africa’s cases but also a big proportion of tests.
As of Tuesday, South Africa had conducted more than four million tests. In comparison, the entire continent of more than 50 countries crossed the 10 million tests mark a month ago.
By international standards, this is a relatively low number, and it is blamed on global shortages of testing equipment and a lack of manufacturing in Africa. It continues to undermine the Africa “success” story.
While there may be cases that have gone undetected, experts such as Dr Nkengasong say there is no indication of a large number of unexplained deaths in most countries.
But there are warnings there could be second wave of infections as more and more countries relax restrictions.
Israel is winning on the world stage, but losing the plot at home
“Let us pause for a moment to appreciate this remarkable day. Let us rise above any political divide. Let us put all cynicism aside. Let us feel on this day the pulse of history,” he said last Tuesday. “For long after the pandemic is gone, the peace we make today will endure.”
The normalization deals were the latest feathers in the cap of a leader who’s been on a diplomatic winning streak lately. From the outside, Israel projects the image of a small but mighty country punching far above its weight on the global stage, an innovative “start-up nation” whose thousands of tech firms attract billions in foreign investment each year.
At home it’s a different story, however. The second wave of coronavirus infections in Israel long ago eclipsed the first, forcing the country into a second general lockdown that has shuttered schools, restaurants, entertainment venues and more. And while the coronavirus may be the most pressing challenge facing Netanyahu right now, it’s far from the only one. The 70-year-old leader is being attacked from both left and the right, not only for his handling of the public health crisis, but also for mismanagement of the economy, his response to his criminal trials, and more.
“We have a dysfunctional government, good at producing ceremonies in the White House, bad at running a country,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid. “This is the worst failure Netanyahu ever experienced and we are experiencing it with him … or because of him.”
At home, weekly protests have swelled outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where thousands of people have come out and called on Israel’s longest-serving leader to resign. The angry crowd, undeterred by a steady barrage of attacks from Netanyahu’s political allies, hold signs that read “Crime Minister” and “Bibi Go Home.” This past weekend, in the first protest since Israel reimposed a general lockdown, eleven protesters were arrested, police said.
Unemployment remains near 19%, according to the Israel Unemployment Service, and an already fragile economy will suffer another blow during the current lockdown. (The Central Bureau of Statistics, which uses a different set of criteria for determining unemployment, says the current rate is between 10.4% and 11.8%.)
Restaurant owners, frustrated as they face a closure that threatens their livelihoods, smashed plates on the floor in protest. Some are more defiant, saying they plan to keep their businesses open.
“No one is caring for us, we have to care for ourselves,” restaurateur Yoni Salomon told Israel’s Kann News. “We won’t let anyone take our most basic rights — there is no sense in this closure and I’ll deal with the fine.”
It’s not just restaurateurs defying government lockdown orders. Israeli police handed out almost seven thousand fines for violating the restrictions over the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Exemplary leadership from the top has also been noticeably lacking. Despite Netanyahu stressing the importance of wearing masks and social distancing, some of his ministers have been photographed without face coverings during cabinet meetings, and two of Netanyahu’s aides have been accused of violating quarantine regulations within the last week.
The lockdown restrictions themselves are a study in bureaucratic legalese, often adjusted and tweaked at the last second so as not to anger Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, or any other group with its own interests and goals that the Prime Minister decides he cannot afford to offend.
The current Israeli government is the largest in the country’s 72-year history, a so-called unity government bringing together — at least in theory — the two main political parties: Netanyahu’s Likud party and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. The bloated political Frankenstein, with 34 ministers and 8 deputy ministers, was fabricated with bits and pieces broken off from existing ministries to create additional jobs for politicians to fill, such as the position of alternate Prime Minister and the Ministry of Higher Education and Water Resources.
And yet despite the government’s size, it remains almost exclusively a one-man show. Netanyahu didn’t even notify his Foreign Minister or Defense Minister– who happens to be Benny Gantz — about the agreement with the United Arab Emirates until it was announced publicly, claiming he was concerned they would leak the news.
This government, specifically designed to handle the coronavirus crisis, was officially sworn in on May 17. On that day, Israel recorded just 11 new cases of Covid-19, according to Ministry of Health data. There were 44 patients on ventilators and 3,403 active cases across the country, out of a total of 16,617 cases.
At the time, critics quipped that the government could put a government minister next to each patient on a ventilator.
Four months later, Israel’s unity government has abjectly failed in its self-declared primary mission. As of Wednesday morning, there were 54,322 active cases in Israel out of a total of 200,041 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Ministry of Health recorded 6,861 new cases Tuesday, with 171 patients on ventilators. Across the country’s beleaguered hospital system, 634 patients were in serious condition.
“Israelis are extremely pessimistic as a result of the corona crisis, and the perceived mismanagement of the economic and health aspects of the crisis,” said Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). A former politician, Plesner said he’s never seen anything like the problems within this current government.
A recent survey from the IDI showed that Israelis overwhelmingly support the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, but that hasn’t translated into a sense of trust in government or confidence about the future of the country. Approximately two-thirds of Israelis believe the national mood is either moderately pessimistic or very pessimistic, according to the survey results, conducted by the Midgam Institute and prepared by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.
“Supposedly, this should have been a national unity government that is steering us out of the crisis, creating the necessary reforms to prepare us for the post-corona era; instead it’s a government that is in total paralysis,” Plesner said.
And yet Netanyahu displayed his brash brand of confidence last Thursday, when he tried to assure Israeli citizens that they’re in good hands. “The main thing I am telling you is that health and the economy are in our hands. This is the time for responsibility — personal responsibility and mutual guarantee. We will defeat the coronavirus but only together will we do so,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu boasted about making peace with two Arab nations in 29 days, from August 13th to September 11th. During that same time period, approximately 62,000 thousand Israelis were diagnosed with Covid-19, while 446 citizens died of the disease. But when Netanyahu was asked last week who should shoulder the blame for the failure to contain the virus, he responded, “There are no failures, only achievements.”
The comment marked a strikingly different tone from that of President Reuven Rivlin just a few days later, when Israel’s head of state offered a forthright apology to the nation for the failure of the country’s leadership to lead.
“I know that we have not done enough as a leadership to be worthy of your attention. You trusted us and we let you down,” said Rivlin. “You, the citizens of Israel, deserve a safety net that the country gives you. Decision-makers, government ministries, policy implementers must work for you and only for you — to save lives, to reduce infection, to rescue the economy. I understand the feeling that none of these were done satisfactorily.”
If Israel’s public health policy is under fire, its economic policy-making is even more sclerotic. The last national budget was passed in 2018, and Netanyahu and Gantz were unable to reach agreement on a new one last month, so they decided instead to simply postpone for a few months in the interests of keeping their government afloat. The head of the budget division in the Ministry of Finance quit his job, joining his counterpart at the Ministry of Health’s public health division, who walked out a few months earlier. Both wrote fiery resignation letters critical of the country’s leadership or lack thereof.
And yet from the lofty position of Israel’s Prime Minister, none of the above counts as the number one problem. Netanyahu’s biggest issue is the fact he has been charged with bribery and fraud and breach of trust. He continues to maintain his innocence, attacking the attorney general, investigators, and the judicial system, accusing them of an attempted coup driven by the left-wing and the media.
His trial begins in earnest in January, when a panel of judges will begin hearing from witnesses. It is hard to imagine a White House ceremony big enough to draw attention away from those criminal proceedings.
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