UPDATE: At least 50 killed, hundreds injured in massive blast in Beirut

Smoke rises from a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Augugust. 4, 2020.
(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. At least 50 people were killed and 2,500 injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.

Hours later, ambulances still carried away the wounded as army helicopters helped battle fires raging at the port.

The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis: Beirut hospitals quickly filled beyond capacity, pleading for blood supplies and generators to keep their lights on.

People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, August 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The cause of the blast, which sparked fires, overturned cars and blew out windows and doors, was not immediately known.

Abbas Ibrahim, chief of Lebanese General Security, said it might have been caused by highly explosive material that was confiscated from a ship some time ago and stored at the port. Local television channel LBC said the material was sodium nitrate.

Witnesses reported seeing a strange orange-coloured cloud over the site after the explosion. Orange clouds of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas often accompany an explosion involving nitrates.

Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, August 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The blast was stunning even for a city that has seen civil war, suicide bombings and bombardment by Israel. It could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometres (180 miles) across the Mediterranean.

 The blast came at a time when Lebanon’s economy is facing collapse from the financial crisis and the coronavirus restrictions. Many have lost jobs, while the worth of their savings has evaporated as the currency has plunged in value against the dollar. The result has thrown many into poverty.

It also occurred amid rising tensions between Israel and the militant Hezbollah group along Lebanon’s southern border.

–AP