by Hashem Osseiran
Beirut – At least 20 people were killed and nearly 80 others wounded when a fuel tanker exploded in Lebanon’s northern region of Akkar, the Red Cross and state media said on Sunday.
The tragedy heaped new misery on a country already suffering from an economic crisis and severe fuel shortages that have crippled hospitals and caused long power cuts.
“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.
It added that 79 other people were injured.
The official National News Agency said that a container of fuel that the army had confiscated had exploded.
It said the explosion took place following scuffles between “residents that gathered around the container to fill up gasoline” overnight.
The agency added that the army had left the area before the fight and the explosion.
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.
“Some have lost their faces, others their arms.”
He said the hospital had to turn away most of the wounded because it is unable to treat severe burns.
Videos on social media purportedly from the blast showed a large fire consuming metal scraps.
AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
– ‘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.
Others found care more than 25 kilometres (16 miles) away at the Al-Salam hospital in the northern city of Tripoli, the only facility in the region able to handle burn patients.
Lebanon, hit by a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the 1850s, has been grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and dire fuel shortages.
The Lebanese army on Saturday said it seized thousands of litres of gasoline and diesel that distributors were stockpiling at stations across the country.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day, while several hospitals have recently warned they may have to close due to power outages.
– Political crisis –
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.
Former prime minister Saad Hariri drew a link between the Akkar and Beirut explosions in a statement shared on Twitter.
“The Akkar massacre is not different from the port massacre,” he said.
“If this was a country that respects its people, its officials would resign, from the president to the very last person responsible for this neglect.”
Despite the economic crisis, political wrangling has delayed the formation of a new government after the last cabinet resigned in the wake of the port blast.
International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
But the money is conditional on the formation of a new government prepared to spearhead reforms, and on the resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund.