By Zeena Karam and Sara Al Diab | The Associated Press
Beirut: Heavy gunfire broke out in Beirut on Thursday during a protest organized by the Hezbollah group against a judge leading the investigation into last year’s port blasts in the city. At least six people have been killed and dozens injured in the most violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital in years.
The exchange of fire with a former frontline from the 1975–90 Civil War included pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and was a reminder of that conflict. Firing continued for hours and ambulances rushed to pick up the casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. The bullets entered the windows of the apartments in the area. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
The chaos has created the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already embroiled in several crises, including one of the world’s worst economic crises in the past 150 years.
It was not clear who started the shooting, which began soon after the protests organized by Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shia allies against Judge Tarek Bitter from the Amal movement, part of an investigation into last year’s massive port blast. are leading. Hezbollah and its allies accused the judge of isolating politicians for questioning, most of them affiliated with Hezbollah.
Tensions over the port explosion have contributed to many of Lebanon’s troubles, including extended power blackouts due to a currency collapse, hyperinflation, rising poverty and an energy crisis.
Officials from both Shia parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Beitar for several days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by accusing and calling on some officials and not others. They want him to be removed.
No Hezbollah official has been charged in the 14-month investigation so far.
The investigation centers on hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which was improperly stored in a port warehouse on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of the surrounding area. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and devastated a country already beset by political divisions and financial woes.
Bitter is the second judge to lead the complex investigation. His predecessor was fired after legal challenges.
On Thursday, shortly before the planned protest, an appeals court filed a request to remove Bitar from his post by two lawmakers who are defendants in the case, both Hezbollah allies.
The call for the removal of the judge upset many who considered it a coercive interference in the working of the judiciary.
Right-wing Christian Lebanese forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Justice Palace on the former front line separating Beirut’s Muslim and Christian regions. Videos that went viral on social media on Wednesday night showed supporters of Christian Lebanese forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.
In a statement on Thursday, two Shia groups said their demonstrators came under fire from snipers stationed on rooftops. Among the dead – all Shia – were two members of Hezbollah.
The military also said that the protesters came under fire, but later in the evening they said there was a “quarrel and an exchange of fire” as the protesters were marching towards the Justice Palace.
The violence took place when US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was meeting with Lebanese officials in the city. His schedule was slightly spoiled by the action on the streets.
Nuland later told an airport news conference that an impartial judiciary is a guarantee of all rights in his apparent criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less, and the people and families of those killed in the port blasts deserve no less,” he said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
As the conflict began, an Associated Press reporter saw a man fired a pistol and gunmen in the direction of protesters from a balcony. Several men immediately collapsed and were bloodied on the street. After the exchange of fire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital, the army sent patrols to the area.
The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 30 people were injured. One of the dead, a mother of five children, was shot in the head. Hezbollah said it planned the funeral of the woman and two of her fighters on Friday. Amal, headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Beri, planned a separate funeral for two of its members.
Four projectiles fell near a private French school, the Frans of Fern el Chebac, causing panic. In scenes reminiscent of the Civil War, students gathered in the central corridors. A plume of smoke enveloped the neighborhoods that witnessed the continuous rain of bullets.
The firing stopped after about four hours after the deployment of army personnel.
Yusuf Diab, a journalist specializing in court cases, said the protests were meant as a show of force and a message that Hezbollah and Amal take control of the road. What happened showed that they are not the only ones who control the road.
“There’s another road, and facing it could blow up the situation in a big way,” Diab said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife”.
Beirut resident Hanin Chemali, who leads a local group providing social services, hid with her 6-month-old baby in the shelter of her building and then into her neighbors’ house. She accused Lebanese leaders of pushing the country into civil war, saying it was “the last card they have to use.”
“They’ve driven us into bankruptcy, catastrophe, and now they’re scaring us with the fear of civil war,” he said.
Michel Yunan, a resident of the Ain el-Remeneh neighborhood, inspects his car, whose windows and doors were broken in the fighting. “There were protests and then all of a sudden the gunfire started… shooting, RPG, everything,” he said. “Isn’t that a shame? They brought us back to the days of war.”
The conflict could derail Mikati’s months-old government even before Lebanon’s handling of the economic downturn begins.
The cabinet meeting on Wednesday was canceled after Hezbollah demanded immediate government action against the judge. A Hezbollah associate minister said he and other members of the Shia cabinet would walk out if Beitar was not removed, further complicating Mikati’s mission.
Associated Press journalists Hassan Ammar and Fadi Tawil contributed to this report.