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A fuel tanker explosion in Lebanon has killed at least 20 people and injured dozens more, according to emergency responders, as power shortages paralysed the country and the armed forces were deployed to raid petrol stations that were allegedly hoarding gas.
The volunteer Lebanese Red Cross, which provides most of the country’s ambulance services, said early on Sunday morning that at least 79 people were wounded in the blast in the remote northern Akkar region, which borders Syria.
The incident was the crisis-wracked country’s biggest disaster since the devastating Beirut port explosion last year.
Lebanon’s state-run news agency said the exact cause of the fuel tanker blast was not clear, but that it had occurred in the vicinity of illicitly stored fuel, which local residents had discovered earlier that afternoon.
The agency added that the Lebanese Armed Forces had arrived to help distribute the fuel but “a stampede” occurred after the soldiers left.
Lebanon’s borderlands are known for illegal trade with war-torn Syria, which has been suffering fuel shortages for more than a year. With Lebanon in the grip of its own petrol crisis, vigilante groups have become active in trying to stop the trafficking, while state security forces were deployed on Saturday to seize and distribute hoarded fuel.
Lebanon’s multi-layered financial, economic and political crises have come to a head over the past few days. On Wednesday, the central bank announced a unilateral decision to halt fuel subsidies, plunging the country into renewed chaos.
“It is disastrous,” said Diana Menhem, managing director of pro-reform lobby group Kulluna Irada. “What is more disastrous is that there are no mechanisms in place . . . to help people cope” with the inflationary pressures that the new market rate fuel prices will probably cause, she added. The UN and World Bank have estimated that more than half of Lebanon lives below the poverty rate.
The Banque du Liban has been running down its remaining reserves as it maintains financing at the official rate of L£1,500 per dollar for imports of essential goods such as fuel and medicine.
BdL foreign currency reserves have halved to $15bn since the economic crisis began in October 2019, while black market exchange prices have soared to L£20,000 per dollar, a more than 90 per cent devaluation, causing hyperinflation.
Petrol stations were shut across the country on Thursday as the government and central bank tussled over how to price essential commodities, and huge queues formed on Friday and Saturday as drivers tried to fill their tanks.
Acute diesel shortages have crippled the parallel private electricity system, a network of local generators on which Lebanese rely to make up for the shortfall in state-provided power. Power service dwindled to mere minutes per day in some areas of Beirut.
The BdL defended its decision on the fuel subsidies on Thursday, saying that it had alerted the government for a year that it was unable to sustain the subsidised exchange rates. The central bank claimed it had provided $800m “to cover fuel costs over the past month”, adding that much of the supplies purchased “are still missing from the market and are sold at prices that exceed their value,” a reference to smuggling and hoarding.
Lebanon’s oil directorate said on Saturday that the BdL and energy ministry had agreed to set a financing rate of L£3,900 per dollar for fuel stockpiles inside the country and directed pumps to sell fuel at the prices set by the ministry last week.
But this did not immediately relieve the situation over the weekend. Small businesses closed until further notice, at least two malls in Beirut shut their doors and large lines were observed outside of bakeries as fears mounted that the ovens would go cold.
The American University of Beirut Medical Centre, one of the Middle East’s premier private hospitals, made a desperate appeal for fuel, saying that patients’ lives were at risk.
The hospital said it faced “a forced shutdown” from Monday morning “as a result of fuel shortages. This means that ventilators and other life-saving medical devices will cease to operate.” It warned that 40 adult and 15 child patients “living on respirators will die immediately”.