Lebanon’s health ministry said that at least 78 people had died and 4,000 suffered injuries in the explosions and fire that shook Beirut on Tuesday.
The numbers climbed steadily through the day, and with the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, they were likely to go higher still.
The secretary-general of the Kataeb political party, Nizar Najarian, was killed in the blast, and among those injured was Kamal Hayek, the chairman of the state-owned electricity company, who was in critical condition, the news agency reported.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, said 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded after lying unsecured in a warehouse for six years, tallying with reports that a ship carrying a similar quantity of the chemical had unloaded its cargo at the port in 2013. It remains unclear what caused the chemical to ignite.
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.
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It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense.