At least 20 people were killed and 79 others injured when a fuel tank exploded in Lebanon’s northern region of Akkar, the Red Cross said on Sunday.
The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear.
“Our teams have transported 20 dead bodies … from the fuel tanker explosion in Akkar to hospitals in the area,” the Lebanese Red Cross said on Twitter.
Military and security sources said that the Lebanese army had seized a hidden fuel storage tank in the town of Tleil and was in the midst of handing out gasoline to residents when the explosion took place, Reuters reported.
About 200 people were nearby at the time of the explosion, eyewitnesses said. There were differing accounts as to the cause of the explosion.
“There was a rush of people, and arguments between some of them led to gunfire which hit the tank of gasoline and so it exploded,” said a security source, who noted that there were members of army and security forces among the casualties.
The local Al-Jadeed TV channel reported from eyewitnesses that an individual who ignited a lighter was the cause.
Abdelrahman, whose face and body was covered in gauze as he laid in Tripoli’s al-Salam hospital, was one of those in line to get some precious gasoline.
“There were hundreds gathered there, right next to the tank, and God only knows what happened to them,” he said.
The Red Cross said its teams were still searching the explosion site, sharing on Twitter a photo of several people walking inside a large crater.
Angry residents in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest areas, gathered at the site and set fire to two dump trucks, according to a Reuters witness.
Some of the injured were sent to hospitals in nearby Tripoli, while others were sent to Beirut, said Rashid Maqsood, an official with the Islamic Medical Association.
The majority of the injured are in serious condition, said Dr Salah Ishaq of al-Salam Hospital. “We can’t accommodate them, we don’t have the capabilities. It’s a very bad situation.”
Yassine Metlej, an employee at an Akkar hospital, said that the facility had received at least seven corpses and dozens of burn victims. “The corpses are so charred that we can’t identify them,” he told AFP.
He said the hospital had to turn away most of the wounded because it is unable to treat severe burns.
An employee at another hospital who asked to be identified only as Mohammad said more than 30 wounded people had come to the facility.
“They all have burns,” he said, adding that many were turned away because the hospital is not equipped to treat such cases.
Videos on social media purportedly from the blast showed a large fire consuming metal scraps. Agence France-Presse could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
Lebanon, hit by what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises the world has seen since the 1850s, has been grappling with soaring poverty and shortages of basic items such as medicine and fuel.
The Lebanese army on Saturday said it had seized thousands of litres of gasoline and diesel that distributors were stockpiling in pumps across the country, and the past week has seen multiple incidents of tankers being hijacked.
The Akkar explosion comes less than two weeks after Lebanon marked the first anniversary of a blast at the Beirut port last summer that killed more than 200 people.
On August 4, 2020, a haphazardly stored stock of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded and left swathes of the capital looking like a war zone.
It was one of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions.
In the year since, no officials have been held to account for that blast.
“The Akkar massacre is no different from the port massacre,” said former prime minister Saad al-Hariri on Twitter, calling on Lebanese officials including the president to take responsibility and resign.
Hariri is the leading Sunni Muslim politician, the dominant religion in Lebanon’s north, and has been in open opposition to Lebanese president Michel Aoun.
Gebran Bassil, who heads the party founded by Aoun, wrote on Twitter that “our hearts are with families in Altalil and Akkar tonight.”