Lebanon’s protests are deadly: 6 killed in Beirut clashes after bomb blasts

BEIRUT – Heavy gunfire erupted on Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Hezbollah group against the judge who led the probe to last year’s explosion in the city’s port. At least six people were killed and dozens injured in the most violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital in several years.

The exchanges of fire along an earlier front line from the 1975-90 civil war involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and were reminiscent of that conflict. Shooting echoed for hours and ambulances rushed to pick up the injured. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.

The chaos aroused the ghost of a return to sectarian violence in a country that has already been involved in several crises, including one of the world’s worst economic crises in the last 150 years.

It was not clear who started the shooting, which began shortly after the start of the protest organized by Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal movement against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. Hezbollah and its allies accuse the judge of pointing out politicians for questioning, most of them allies with Hezbollah.

Tensions over the port blast have contributed to Lebanon’s many problems, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, rising poverty and an energy crisis that have led to increased power outages.

Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Bitar for several days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by accusing and calling some officials and not others. They want him removed.

None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been indicted in the 14-month investigation.

The probe concentrates on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were incorrectly stored at a port warehouse that detonated on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further destroyed the country, which was already occupied by political divisions and financial misery.

Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation. His predecessors were removed after legal challenges.

On Thursday, just before the planned protest, an appeals court rejected a request to remove Bitar from his post from two lawmakers charged in the case, both Hezbollah allies.

The calls for the judge to be removed upset many who felt that it was an obvious interference in the work of the judiciary.

Lebanese right-wing extremist Christian forces mobilized supporters on Wednesday night after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Justice Palace, which is on the former front line considering Muslim and Christian areas in Beirut. Videos circulating on social media Wednesday night showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese forces marching in the streets carrying large crosses.

In a statement on Thursday, the two Shiite groups said their protesters were shot by snipers deployed over rooftops. Among the dead – all Shiites – were two Hezbollah members.

The army also said the protesters were shot, but later in the evening it said a “brawl and exchange of fire” occurred while the protesters were on their way to the Justice Palace.

The violence took place while US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town and met with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was thrown somewhat by the incident on the streets.

Nuland later told an airport conference that an impartial judiciary guarantees all rights, in blatant criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people do not deserve less, and the victims and families of those lost in the blowout do not deserve less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the efforts are.”

The UN Secretary-General called on all parties to stop the violence and refrain from provocative acts or outrageous rhetoric, says UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

“The Secretary-General reiterates the need for an impartial, thorough and open investigation into the explosion at the port of Beirut that took place last year,” Dujarric said.

When the clashes broke out, an Associated Press journalist saw a man open fire with a gun and armed men fired at protesters from a balcony. Several men immediately fell and bled on the street. The army sent patrols to the area after the shooting between the Muslim and Christian side of the capital.

The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 30 people were injured. One of the dead, a mother of five, was shot in the head. Hezbollah said it planned a funeral for the woman, and two of its fighters, for Friday. Amal, led by Speaker Nabih Berri, planned a separate funeral for two of its members.

Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Freres from Furn el Chebbak, causing panic. In scenes reminiscent of the Civil War, students retreated into the central corridors. Smoke covered the neighborhood that saw relentless gunfire.

The shooting slowed down about four hours later, after the army troops were deployed.

Youssef Diab, a journalist who specializes in legal issues, said the protest was intended as a demonstration of power and a statement that Hezbollah and Amal were controlling the street. What happened showed them that they are not the only ones controlling the street.

“There is another street and confronting it can blow up the situation in a big way,” says Diab.

In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people not to “be dragged into civil strife”.

Beirut resident Haneen Chemaly, who leads a local group providing social services, hid with her 6-month-old baby in the building’s shelter and then at the neighbors’ home. She accused Lebanon’s leaders of leading the country into civil war, saying it was “the last card they must use.”

“They have (driven) us to bankruptcy, destruction and now they are scaring us with the civil war,” she said.

Michel Younan, a resident of the Ain el-Remeneh district, inspected his car, where its windows and doors were smashed in the fighting. “There were protests and suddenly gunfire started … Shootings, role-playing games, everything,” he said. “Isn’t it a shame? They took us back to the days of the war.”

The clashes could be traced back to Mikati’s month – old government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s economic collapse.

A cabinet meeting was adjourned on Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. A Hezbollah ally minister said he and other Shiite cabinet members would make an outing if Bitar was not removed, further complicating Mikati’s mission.

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Associated Press journalists Hassan Ammar and Fadi Tawil contributed to this report.

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