Beirut declared a 'disaster city' as blasts death toll up to 73

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

was declared a "disaster city" on Tuesday evening as the death toll from two massive explosions that rocked the Lebanese capital's port earlier in the day rose to 73.

More than 3,000 people were also injured in the blasts, Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said.

After an emergency meeting called by President Michel Aoun, 's Higher Defence Council declared Beirut a disaster city recommended cabinet declare a two-week state of emergency.

The cause of the explosions was not immediately clear, but Lebanon's internal security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, said the area was housing highly explosive materials.

"We cannot pre-empt investigations," he said.

"What happened today will not go unpunished and those responsible for this disaster will pay the price, and this is a promise to the martyrs and the wounded," Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. Martyr can be used in the Arab and Muslim world to refer to victims of accidents.

"Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014, i.e. for 6 years now, will be announced. I will not preempt the investigations. At the moment, we are focusing on handling the disaster, pulling the martyrs out, and treating the wounded." the premier said.

Among the dead was the secretary general of the Kataeb Party, Nizar Najarian, who reportedly died of severe injuries from the blasts.

The massive explosions rocked Beirut, causing panic across the the Lebanese capital.

Windows were shattered across the city and at its outskirts. Black smoke billowed over Beirut's port. At least some of the wounded were buried under rubble.

Initial reports said the blast was inside a fireworks depot at the port.

Damage was reported in houses in central Beirut. Additionally, the main highway near the port was covered with pieces of glass.

Former prime minister Saad Hariri's house in the city centre also suffered damage, which extended to the Lebanese governmental palace in central Beirut. Extensive damage was also reported to the Finnish embassy, though staff were all reported to be safe.

Lebanon's army was helping in transferring the wounded to nearby hospitals. Shortly after the explosions, telephone and internet services went down in the capital.

Residents in the Kartina area, a few metres from the location of the blasts, told dpa that they heard two explosions, the second one was the bigger one.

"There is damage that extended 7 kilometres away from the site," a police officer at the scene said.

"We were sitting in our living room and suddenly the wall and glass fell on our heads," another man, identified as Roumi, 44, told dpa.

A person identified as Aida, who suffered injuries to her legs, told dpa "I was in my kitchen cooking and suddenly I was thrown towards my living room. My two kids were injured too."

An elderly man covered with blood waiting to be treated outside the American University Hospital told dpa: "I first thought it was an earthquake, then my wall and glass fell on me."

A 9-year-old boy who suffered head injuries said: "I was playing in my room and suddenly I felt someone throw me towards the door and hit my head."

There were tragic scenes in hospitals, amid calls for blood donations. People covered with blood could be seen standing at the doors of the hospitals.

Diab said Wednesday would be a national day of mourning for the victims.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was quick to tamp down any speculation of Israeli involvement, saying the explosion "was an accident caused by a fire, I suggest caution with speculation - I do not see any reason not to believe the reports from Beirut."

Israel has often had military clashes with militias based in Lebanon. Just last week, Israeli forces scrambled after a still-unidentified event at the countries' border.

Israel said it offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon via foreign channels, as the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

French President Emmanuel Macron said his country is in the process of sending aid to Lebanon.

"France is side by side with Lebanon. Always," Macron tweeted. "French aid and resources are currently on their way."

"We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy," United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet.

Turkey also said it "stands in solidarity with our Lebanese brothers and sisters at this difficult time," said Fahrettin Altun, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's communications director. "All our government agencies are ready to help the Lebanese people."

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