Families of the Beirut bombing victims sentenced back under pressure

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BEIRUT – The families of the victims of Beirut’s massive port bombing last year confirmed on Saturday their support for the judge who led the investigation into the explosion, despite growing calls for him to be ousted by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies.

The families’ statement was apparently intended to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media late on Friday in which he urges judge Tarek Bitar to resign.

The spokesman, Ibrahim Hoteit, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if he had made the video under pressure.

The families said he had not coordinated with them, which he always does before publishing, and that the video surprised them.

Since the explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 that killed at least 215 people, the families of the victims have taken an increasingly prominent role in Lebanon with their demands for responsibility.

After the explosion, it emerged from documents that several senior politicians and security chiefs knew about the hundreds of tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate that were stored randomly in a port warehouse and did nothing about it.

On Thursday, gun battles erupted on the streets of Beirut between two camps that opposed and supported the judge in the probe, killing seven and injuring dozens.

Violence erupted during a protest organized by Hezbollah and Amal groups, which has demanded the removal of Bitar.

The two groups have suggested that the investigation move towards holding them responsible for the explosion.

“We, the families of more than 200 martyrs and thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of people who have been injured, have trusted the investigating judge Tarek Bitar,” the families say.

In the video, the spokesman demands that the judge resign because “the situation has turned into the shedding of the blood of innocent people” – a reference to Thursday’s violence. The spokesperson’s younger brother was killed in the harbor explosion.

Judge Bitar has prosecuted and issued arrest warrants for former Lebanese finance and public ministers, both closely allied with Hezbollah.

Bitar has accused the two, along with another former minister and prime minister, of intentional killing and negligence that led to the blast.

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