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Dubai authorities probe port blast that shook the city

Dubai authorities were Thursday investigating an explosion on a container ship carrying flammable materials which unleashed a fireball at one of the world’s busiest ports and sent shock waves through the city.

Firefighters rushed to the scene at Jebel Ali Port to tackle the blaze that broke out shortly before midnight on the large vessel which authorities said had been preparing to dock.

Flames and smoke poured from the ship but authorities said the blaze was doused within 40 minutes and there were no casualties, with all 14 crew evacuated in time.

Police said that the summer heat, already hovering above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Gulf city, may have been a factor.

“Jebel Ali Port authorities are continuing an extensive investigation on the cause of the fire and its circumstances,” the Dubai Media Office said in a statement.

Police vehicles and fire trucks were Thursday still parked close to the heavily damaged vessel, which the authorities identified as the Comoros-flagged MV Ocean Trader.

Drone footage released by the Emirates media office showed smoke still emanating from the ship, docked at the port near stacks of thousands of containers.

Residents of apartment towers and villas that line the city’s coast reported hearing a loud bang in the night and then felt windows and doors shaking after the fireball shot into the sky.

An AFP correspondent saw a helicopter circling overhead as columns of smoke rose from the tightly secured facility after the blast.

Dubai police said three of the 130 containers on the ship held flammable materials.

“Initial reports indicate that… friction, or heat, may have led to the blast”, Dubai police chief Abdullah al-Marri told Al-Arabiya, adding that there were no radioactive substances or explosives in the containers.

Such events are a rarity in the ultra-secure Gulf emirate, one of seven which make up the wealthy United Arab Emirates.

– ‘Windows shaking’ –

Jebel Ali port is capable of handling aircraft carriers and was the US Navy’s busiest port of call outside of the United States in 2017, according to the US Congressional Research Service.

Global logistics giant DP World tweeted that “operations are running seamlessly” across the port, thanking the local authorities for “their swift response in resolving the fire incident”.

“I was outside on my balcony,” said Clemence Lefaix, who was staying near the blast site and posted a photo of a bright orange light against the night sky in front of apartment buildings.

“My friend saw something yellow (like) the sun. I took the picture and after (there was) a sound. I was really scared.”

A resident of Dubai’s Marina district, which is close to Jebel Ali port, told AFP that they “saw the windows shaking”.

“I have been living here for 15 years and this is the first time I’ve seen and heard this.”

There are 8,000 companies based in the Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA) which contributed 23 percent of Dubai’s gross domestic product last year. It is the Middle East’s largest trade zone.

The glitzy Gulf emirate of Dubai transformed itself over the past 50 years from a sleepy port town to a regional travel, trade and financial services centre.

The city state is now home to more than three million people, mostly foreigners, compared with only 15,000 inhabitants in the 1950s.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, the leading member of the UAE that sits on large fossil fuel reserves, Dubai has dwindling oil resources and has worked to develop non-oil industries, becoming a hub for services and tourism for the region.