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

BEIRUT – Armed clashes erupted on Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the leading judge investigating last year’s explosion in the city’s port. At least six people were killed and dozens injured in the most protracted and violent street fighting in the city in years, authorities said.

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. Shootings echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens complaining, rushed to pick up the injured. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area.

It was not immediately clear what triggered Thursday’s violence.

Tensions had been high after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia and its Shiite allies from the Amal movement demanded the removal of Tarek Bitar, the judge who led the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. The two parties demanded a protest near the Justice Palace, which is located along the former front line between Muslim Shiites and Christian areas.

In a statement on Thursday, the two groups said their protesters were shot by snipers deployed over rooftops.

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 port disaster do not deserve less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the efforts are.”

The demands that Bitar be removed and calls for protest upset many who considered it an obvious intervention in the work of the judiciary.

Lebanese right-wing Christian forces mobilized supporters on Wednesday night after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Justice Palace, which is located in a Christian area. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Lebanese Christian forces marching in the streets carrying large crosses.

When the clashes broke out, a journalist with the Associated Press saw a man open fire with a pistol and armed men fire in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. Several men immediately fell from the shooting and bled on the street. The army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to search for the gunmen, following the exchange of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital.

Lebanese authorities said at least six people were killed and 30 injured. A staff member at the emergency room at al-Sahel Hospital said they received three bodies and 15 people who were injured. One of the dead, a woman, had been shot in the head. Two of the 15 injured were in critical condition.

Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Freres from Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The students gathered in the central corridors with the windows open to avoid greater impact, in scenes reminiscent of the Civil War. Smoke covered the neighborhood where intense shootings were relentless. A car caught fire while a fire was reported on a lower floor where residents got stuck and called for help.

Occasional gunfire continued even after Army troops were deployed in the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area ducked to avoid the shooting. Someone shouted: “Some martyrs on the ground!” People pulled a man who was apparently shot down and down from the line of fire. Others pulled away another body.

In some videos circulating online, some men chatted: “Shiite Shiite” in the streets, while residents ran from the shooting.

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

The court investigation focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been stored incorrectly at a port warehouse that detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, damaging thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has further destroyed the country, which has already been affected by political divisions and unparalleled economic and financial collapses.

Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation – his predecessor was removed after legal challenges. Now Bitar has encountered formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of appointing politicians for questioning, most of them allies with Hezbollah.

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

Tensions over the port blast are increasing Lebanon’s enormous problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial collapse, an energy crisis leading to increased power outages, hyperinflation and soaring poverty.

Beirut resident xx Chemaly, who leads a local NGO providing social services, accused Lebanon’s leaders of steering 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.

The armed clash could trace 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 cabinet members would conduct a walkout if Bitar was not removed.

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Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed reporting.

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