A huge explosion in port warehouses near central Beirut killed more than 50 people, injured over 2,750 and sent shockwaves that shattered windows, smashed masonry and shook the ground across the Lebanese capital, Reuters reported.
Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble. The cause of the blasts that took place in the port area of the city is not immediately known.
The explostions shook buildings, caused apartment balconies to collapse and sent huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky.
Officials expected the death toll to rise further as emergency workers dug through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead. It was the most powerful explosion to hit Beirut in years.
Lebanon’s interior minister said initial information indicated highly explosive material, seized years ago, that had been stored at the port had blown up. Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, denied any role and offered help, Reuters reported.
An AFP correspondent at the scene was quoted as saying every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire shopfronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked.
A woman in the city centre told AFP: "It felt like an earthquake ... I felt it was bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005.”
“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” said a Reuters witness.
Injured people were walking in the street, while outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre including children.
Destroyed cars had been abandoned in the street with their airbags inflated.
A huge cloud of black smoke was engulfing the entire port area, the AFP correspondent said.
The explosions came at a time when Lebanon is suffering its worst economic crisis in decades, which has left nearly half of the population in poverty.
The explosions also come as Lebanon awaits the verdict on Friday on the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge truck bomb attack.
Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim fundamentalist group Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in the Netherlands over the huge Beirut suicide bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people.