At least 20 people were killed and nearly 80 others injured when a fuel tank exploded in Lebanon's northern region of Akkar, the Red Cross and state media said Sunday.
The tragedy overwhelmed medical facilities and spurred a search for the missing, heaping new misery on a country already suffering from an economic crisis and severe fuel shortages that have crippled hospitals and caused long power cuts.
"Our teams have transported 20 dead bodies… from the fuel tanker explosion in #AKKAR to hospitals in the area," the Lebanese Red Cross said on Twitter.
It added that 79 other people were injured.
The official National News Agency said that a container of fuel that the army had confiscated — part of an effort by the military to stop suppliers from hoarding—had exploded.
It said the explosion took place following scuffles between "residents that gathered around the container to fill up gasoline" overnight.
The agency added that the army had left the area before the fight and the explosion.
Yassine Metlej, an employee at an Akkar hospital, said that the facility had received at least seven corpses and dozens of burns victims.
"The corpses are so charred that we can't identify them," he told AFP.
"Some have lost their faces, others their arms."
He said the hospital had to turn away most of the wounded because it is not equipped to treat severe burns.
George Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross told local media that first responders received reports of an explosion shortly before 2:00am (2300 GMT).
He warned that the tragedy will pile pressure on the country's only two burns centres, located in the northern city of Tripoli and the capital Beirut.
An employee at Akkar hospital who asked to be identified only as Mohammad said more than 30 wounded people had come to the facility following the explosion.
"They all have burns," he said, adding that many were turned away because the hospital is not equipped to treat such cases.
Many patients were referred to Tripoli's Al-Salam hospital, more than 25 kilometres (16 miles) away.
An AFP correspondent there saw patients with burned arms and legs.
The overcrowding at Al-Salam prompted many to flock to the Geitawi hospital in Beirut, which also struggled to keep up with the influx of patients suffering from burns.
Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan instructed hospitals across the country "to receive the wounded from the painful tragedy in Akkar's al-Talil at the ministry's expense and without reluctance."
Lebanon, hit by a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet's worst since the 1850s, has been grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and dire fuel shortages.
The Lebanese army on Saturday said it seized thousands of litres of gasoline and diesel that distributors were stockpiling at stations across the country.
Fuel shortages have left many with just two hours of electricity a day, while several hospitals have recently warned they may have to close due to power outages.
The American University of Beirut Medical Centre, the country's top private hospital, said it would close by Monday morning if it doesn't secure diesel fuel to power generators.
It warned that this would cause hundreds of deaths.
Search for missing
Hundreds of Akkar residents flocked to the blast site which was cordoned off by the army early Sunday morning, according to NNA.
Soldiers and rescuers were sweeping the area for missing people and survivors, NNA said.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun called for an investigation into the circumstances that led to the blast.
The Akkar explosion comes less than two weeks after Lebanon marked the first anniversary of a blast at Beirut port last summer that killed more than 200 people.
On August 4, 2020, a haphazardly stored stock of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded and left swathes of the capital resembling a war zone.
It was one of history's largest non-nuclear explosions.
In the year since no officials have been held to account for that blast.
Despite the economic crisis, political wrangling has delayed the formation of a new government after the last cabinet resigned in the wake of the port blast.
International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
But the money is conditional on the establishment of a new government prepared to spearhead reforms, and on the resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund.