ZEYNA KARAM and SARA EL DIB
BEIRUT (AP) – Clashes broke out in Beirut on Thursday during a protest organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the chief judge who investigated last year’s port bombing. Authorities said at least six people were killed and dozens injured in the city’s longest and most violent street fighting in recent years.
Pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were involved in skirmishes along the former front line of the 1975-90 civil war, and they were reminiscent of this conflict. In the Lebanese capital, gunfire echoed for several hours, and ambulances, howling sirens, rushed to pick up the wounded. Snipers were shooting from buildings. Bullets pierced the windows of apartments in this area.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the violence on Thursday. Both sides said their protesters were shot at by snipers on rooftops.
Tensions escalated after Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite Amal allies demanded the removal of Tarek Bitar, a judge investigating a massive port bombing last year. Both parties have called for a protest outside the Palace of Justice, located along the former front line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.
The violence erupted when US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly interfered with by street actions.
Nuland later said at a press conference at the airport that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, clearly criticizing Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less, and the victims and families of those killed in the port bombing deserve no less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence clearly shows where the stakes are.”
Demands to remove Bitar and calls for protests upset many who saw this as flagrant interference with the judiciary.
Right-wing Christian Lebanese forces mobilized their supporters Wednesday night after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Palace of Justice, located in the Christian district. Videos shared on social media show supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching through the streets with large crosses.
When clashes broke out, an Associated Press reporter saw a man open fire with a pistol and gunmen firing at protesters from the balcony of the building. Several people immediately fell from the shot and bled to death right on the street. Following a skirmish between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital, the army deployed and sent patrols to the area to search for militants.
Lebanese authorities said at least six people were killed and 30 injured. An emergency room employee at Al Sahel hospital said they received three bodies and 15 people who were injured. One of the victims, a woman, was shot in the head. Two of the wounded were in critical condition.
Four shells fell near the private French school Freres of Furn el Chebbak, sparking panic, a security official said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the press.
Students huddled in central corridors with open windows to avoid being hit hard, in scenes reminiscent of the civil war. Smoke covered the surroundings, where intense shooting continued. A car caught fire, and a fire was reported on the lower floor, where residents were stuck and called for help.
Sporadic gunfire continued even after army troops were deployed to the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area dived to avoid gunfire. Someone shouted: “Martyrs on earth!” The men dragged one man, who had apparently been shot, away from the line of fire. Others dragged another body away.
In some videos distributed on the Internet, some men chanted “Shiite Shiite” in the streets as residents fled from the fire.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to get involved in civil strife.”
The forensic investigation focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that were improperly stored in a port warehouse that exploded on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of the surrounding area. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already shaken by political divisions and an unprecedented economic and financial crisis.
Bitar is the second judge leading a complex investigation – his predecessor was suspended from legal proceedings. Bitar now faces formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah and its allies, who accuse him of choosing politicians, most of whom are Hezbollah allies, to interrogate.
So far, no Hezbollah official has been charged in a 14-month investigation.
The tension over the port blast exacerbates Lebanon’s immense multiple problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, an energy crisis leading to prolonged power outages, hyperinflation and a sharp rise in poverty.
Beirut resident Khanin Chemali, who heads a local non-governmental organization that provides social services, accused Lebanese leaders of dragging the country into a civil war, saying it was “the last card they should use.”
“They (drove) us to bankruptcy, ruin and now they scare us with the specter of civil war,” she said.
Nuland, who said she came to show support for Mikati’s new government. At a press conference held at the Beirut airport, she called on the government to “take decisive action” that would demonstrate the will to reform.
However, the armed confrontation could undermine the work of the Mikati government, which has existed for a month, even before it begins to fight the economic crisis in Lebanon.
A cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah urged the government to take urgent action against the judge. One Hezbollah supporter said he and other Shiite cabinet ministers would go on strike if Bitar was not removed, further complicating Mikati’s mission.
Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar from Beirut prepared a report.