At least 70 people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured in massive explosions in Beirut, with rescue teams scrambling to save trapped civilians.
The Lebanese health minister confirmed the figures, warning that they are expected to rise further. The death toll had already doubled within one hour.
The blasts flattened much of the port in the Lebanese capital, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as it struck with enough force to trigger Richter scale readings equivalent to a 3.5 magnitude earthquake.
Video footage showed a huge mushroom cloud rise above the capital, with thick plumes of smoke rising into the sky, which is thought to have been triggered by thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been confiscated by the port years beforehand.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that those responsible for the incident at a “dangerous” warehouse would pay the price.
“I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” he said in a televised speech.
In later comments he added that it was “unacceptable” that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were being stored in a warehouse.
“I will not rest until we find the person responsible for what happened so we can hold them to account and impose the most severe punishment,” the prime minister was quoted as saying by an official Twitter account.
“It is unacceptable that a shipment of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has been present for six years in a warehouse, without taking preventive measures and endangering the safety of citizens”.
Georges Kettaneh, a Lebanese Red Cross official, said hundreds of injured civilians had been taken to hospitals for treatment.
A civil defence official on the scene of the blast said his men had evacuated dozens but that there were still bodies inside the port, many of them under debris.
The Independent witnessed several injured people, their heads bleeding, being carried to hospitals on the back of motorcycles through neighbourhoods coated in shattered glass.
One woman, 56, who works for St George Hospital and was a nurse through Lebanon’s civil war of 1975-1990 and the 2006 war with Israel, said she had never experienced such a huge explosion.
She had been getting ready for her night shift at home in Jeitawi Beirut.
“Suddenly the lights blew out, the TV stopped, then a massive blast. We fell to the ground, my son cried out ‘the bombing has started,’” she said, asking to remain anonymous.
She spoke to The Independent in the hospital car park, which has been turned into a makeshift emergency department as the emergency room had been destroyed.
A wounded man is evacuated by boat after the explosion (AFP)
“The pressure of the blast hit my chest – it felt like an atomic bomb had gone off. The windows were blown out, the entire street is destroyed – all the roads is covered in shattered glass.”
“The explosions were worse than the bombing in the civil war. When I came to the hospital it was like the explosion took place inside the hospital not the port – patients were covered in blood.”
In Cyprus –180 km (110 miles) northwest of Beirut – residents reported hearing two large bangs in quick succession. One resident of the capital Nicosia said his house shook, rattling shutters.
It comes at a time of significant economic and political upheaval for Lebanon, with the country facing the worst financial crisis in decades.
Video footage showed the incident first starting as a fire raging at the port, sending up a giant column of smoke, illuminated by flashes of what appear to be fireworks.
The blaze then appeared to catch at a nearby building, triggering a more massive explosion, sending up a mushroom cloud and a shock wave over the city.
The metal casing of shop fronts were torn open, cars were destroyed and belongings from flats scattered across the streets.
The aftershock was felt in the mountains above Beirut, at least 13 miles away, and was so strong it blew out doors and windows in buildings across the city.
Boris Johnson said the UK was ready to provide support and an unknown number of British nationals may have been affected.
“The pictures and videos from Beirut tonight are shocking. All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident,” he said in a statement on Twitter.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “The images of explosions in Beirut are deeply worrying. Our thoughts are with those affected, the emergency services and the people of Lebanon.”
Israel also offered to send aid to Lebanon, in a rare gesture between two countries still technically at war.
The spokesperson from the US State Department said Washington was closely following the reports and stood ready to offer “all possible assistance”.