NAIROBI, Kenya -- The Kenyan authorities ordered the temporary closing on Wednesday of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport here in Nairobi after a huge fire broke out and raged for four hours, officials and witnesses said. The blaze spread to the international arrivals area, bringing East Africa's busiest airport to a standstill and turning parts of it into charred ruins.
By midafternoon, Michael Kamau, a senior government transportation official, told reporters that the airport had been partially reopened for domestic and cargo flights, but that international passenger traffic was still suspended. The airport authorities planned to convert another part of the facility to a temporary terminal for international passenger flights, he said.
The blaze sent a plume of black smoke that was visible from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, a few miles away, witnesses said. Visiting the gutted section of the circular, 1960s-era terminal, Kenya's president, Uhuru Kenyatta, said there was no loss of life but expressed dismay over the damage and the disruption the blaze had caused to air travelers, said Manoah Esipisu, a presidential spokesman. The cause of the fire was being investigated, he added.
Kenya is a crucial Western ally, abutting troubled areas of neighboring Somalia. But Mr. Kenyatta and other Kenyan officials were reluctant to make any immediate link to terrorism. Wednesday, Aug. 7, is the anniversary of the 1998 coordinated bombings of United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks that killed more than 200 people.
"There is no reason to speculate at this point," Mr. Esipisu said.
Nairobi is an essential hub for sub-Saharan passenger traffic, transporting 6.3 million passengers a year on more than 40 international airlines from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the rest of Africa. It is also a vital cargo link, particularly for the export of fresh produce, cut flowers and other perishable goods from across East Africa -- an important source of foreign currency. The airport handled around 279,000 tons of freight in 2012, according to Airports Council International, second only to Johannesburg, which handled 336,000 tons.
Analysts said the quick resumption of international cargo traffic would likely minimize any immediate impact on the Kenyan economy, and the fact that some passenger flights had also resumed indicated that critical computer systems that handle ticketing, baggage processing and navigation systems were unaffected by the blaze.
"If the runway can operate and the control tower can operate, then the airport should be close to fully operational within a few days," said David Feldman, a managing partner at Exambela, an aviation consulting firm based in Paris.
Airport officials said the fire started at around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, when many flights to and from Europe and elsewhere were scheduled. Many incoming flights were diverted to the Indian Ocean coastal city of Mombasa.
Katie Price, an American aid worker with Catholic Relief Services, said she arrived on a plane from Lusaka, Zambia, that landed at around the time the fire broke out and was stranded in the aircraft for several hours, before hundreds of passengers were evacuated through a makeshift immigration hall in a cargo area that escaped the blaze.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Price, 32, said the fire appeared to have caused major damage. "It looked like it would be hard to repair," she said.
Kenya's civil aviation authorities gave clearance late Wednesday for the airport to operate international passenger flights from a part of the terminal normally reserved for domestic traffic, although most were not expected to resume before Thursday.
"We want to guarantee the safety and security of all passengers, and that is our most important consideration at this time," said Mr. Esipisu, the presidential spokesman.
Smoke continued to billow from the blackened, five-story terminal building late Wednesday and an acrid stench lingered in the air. Hundreds of people, including airport workers and stranded travelers, milled outside a cordon set up near the remains of the international arrivals area, which also housed baggage-claim facilities.
Among the stranded travelers were Rebecca Wilson, 45, and her 14-year-old son, Jacob Bilich, from Ohio; Ellie Rencher, 35, from North Carolina; and Jim Naughton, 56, from Washington, D.C. Many of the travelers said they were frustrated by the lack of information available to passengers.
"We had organized a conference in Kenya and decided to take a few days off to spend time in a village near the Masai Mara Game Reserve," about 280 kilometers, or 174 miles, west of Nairobi, Ms. Wilson said. "We got the news about the fire this morning on our way back to catch our flight."
Mr. Naughton said that the group was now trying to find alternative routes home, but and that he hoped to make it back to Washington in time for his mother's birthday on Saturday.
Mr. Feldman predicted that the situation for air travelers was likely to remain chaotic for some time, as August is a peak month for Kenyan tourism, with thousands of visitors flocking to its beaches and game reserves.
"It will be a mess, probably operating in very uncomfortable, open-air conditions" with significant delays, Mr. Feldman said.
Reuben Kyama reported from Nairobi, and Nicola Clark from Paris. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.
Correction: August 7, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport handled around 279,000 tons of freight. It was 2012, not 2011.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.