At least 20 people were killed and 79 injured in a fuel tank explosion in the Akkar region in northern Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross said on its Twitter account early on Sunday.
Lebanon is suffering from a severe fuel shortage, leading to long lines at gas stations and extended blackouts.
Military and security sources said that the Lebanese army had seized a hidden fuel storage tank in the town of Altalil and was in the midst of handing out gasoline to residents when the explosion took place.
About 200 people were nearby at the time of the explosion, eyewitnesses said.
There were differing accounts as to the cause of the explosion.
“There was a rush of people, and arguments between some of them led to gunfire which hit the tank of gasoline and so it exploded,” said a security source, who noted that there were members of army and security forces among the casualties.
Local Al-Jadeed TV channel reported from eyewitnesses that an individual who ignited a lighter was the cause.
Abdelrahman, whose face and body was covered in gauze as he laid in Tripoli’s al-Salam hospital, was one of those in line to get some precious gasoline.
“There were hundreds gathered there, right next to the tank, and God only knows what happened to them,” he said.
The father of another casualty at the hospital said he had two other sons he still hadn’t located.
The Red Cross said its teams were still searching the explosion site, sharing on Twitter a photo of several people walking inside a large crater.
Angry residents in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest areas, gathered at the site and set fire to two dump trucks, according to a Reuters witness.
Some of the injured were sent to hospitals in nearby Tripoli, while others were sent to Beirut, said Rashid Maqsood, an official with the Islamic Medical Association.
The majority of the injured are in serious condition, said Dr. Salah Ishaq of al-Salam Hospital. “We can’t accommodate them. We don’t have the capabilities. It’s a very bad situation.”
Hospitals in Lebanon have warned fuel shortages may force them to shut down in coming days, and also reported low supplies of medicines and other essentials.
“The Akkar massacre is no different from the (Beirut) port massacre,” said former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Twitter, calling on Lebanese officials including the president to take responsibility and resign.
Hariri is the leading Sunni Muslim politician, the dominant religion in Lebanon’s north, and has been in open opposition to Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Aoun wrote on Twitter “this tragedy that befell our dear Akkar has made the hearts of all Lebanese bleed,” adding that he asked the judiciary to investigate the circumstances that led to the explosion.
Reuters was unable to immediately reach Red Cross and Lebanese officials for comment.