A fuel tank explosion in Lebanon’s northern region of Akkar Sunday killed at least 22 people and injured 79, many with very bad burns, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. The incident comes amid a severe fuel and power shortage which has led to long lines at gas stations and extended blackouts.
The Lebanese army has opened an investigation into the fatal fuel tank explosion, while President Michel Aoun called on the Supreme Defense Council to discuss a response. Members of the army and civilians are among the casualties.
The circumstances of the explosion are still not clear. The army said it seized a hidden fuel storage tank from a camouflaged warehouse where some 60,000 liters of gasoline were stored. An order was given to distribute badly needed supplies to the residents. Some witnesses say that after the army left, a huge stampede took place to get the remaining gasoline in the tank and that it exploded in an open area.
Fuel is becoming scarce and increasingly more expensive. Some blame the severe shortage on supplies being smuggled to Syria, hoarding, and the cash-strapped government’s inability to secure deliveries of imported fuel. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh also announced last week that government subsidies on fuel would be cut, causing prices to soar. Fuel is used for vehicles and to power electric generators, and shortages are forcing bakeries, hospitals and other businesses to shut down.
Joseph Bahout, who heads the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, says this is another terrible incident resulting from the lack of political will to tackle Lebanon’s problems.
“The money reserves at the Central Bank were clearly depleting. Everybody knows the subsidies cannot be sustained. No one wanted to confront the reality of the situation. The governor said he couldn’t continue subsidizing the fuel. We start seeing incidents at the gas stations. People gathered around a land where they know the local politician took some fuel and gas in order to smuggle it to Syria. They want to take it by force. The explosion occurred. The incident is terrible. It is maybe unfortunately going to be replicated elsewhere,” Bahout said.
Akkar governorate, on the border with Syria, is one of Lebanon’s poorest areas.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has urged Lebanese officials, including President Aoun, to take responsibility and resign. Hariri said on Twitter, "The Akkar massacre is no different from the [Beirut] port massacre."
Hariri was referring to the devastation caused in August of last year when improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port exploded, leaving nearly 220 people dead and swaths of the capital in ruins. The blast was recorded as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Separately, the renowned American University of Beirut Medical Center has made an urgent appeal to United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, to supply the hospital where victim's of the Akkar explosion were taken with fuel before it is forced to shut down Monday. It is feared that the closure will threaten the lives of critically ill patients.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.