BEIRUT (AP) – At least three people were killed and many more injured on Thursday during a demonstration in Beirut by militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the senior judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in the port of the city, according to the National News Agency.
The exchanges of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have been a dangerous escalation of tensions over the national investigation.
Gunshots echoed through the capital and ambulances rushed to the scene, sirens blaring. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated the windows of apartments in the neighborhood. Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Frères de Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Students clustered in central hallways with windows open to avoid major impact, in scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 Civil War.
The demonstration in front of the Palace of Justice was demanded by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, which demand the impeachment of Judge Tarek Bitar.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the gunfire, but tensions were high along a former civil war frontline between Shia Muslim and Christian areas.
The right-wing Lebanese Christian Forces mobilized their supporters on Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and its allies called for demonstrations at the courthouse, located in a Christian quarter. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Lebanese Christian Forces marching through the streets carrying large crosses.
An Associated Press reporter saw a man opening fire with a pistol during the protest, as well as gunmen firing at protesters from a balcony of a building. At least two men were seen injured and bleeding. The army has deployed massively and sent patrols to the area to search for the armed men, following the exchange of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian parts of the capital.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil war”.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored in a warehouse at the port exploded on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of neighboring neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already rocked by political divisions and an unprecedented economic and financial crisis.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has met overwhelming opposition from the powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah and its allies who accuse him of choosing politicians to question them, mostly allies of Hezbollah. .
None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.
The shooting continued even after army troops deployed to the area on Thursday, with the sound of gunfire over their heads. Residents and civilians in the area dodged to avoid the fire, some shouting: “Martyrs on the ground!” People shot a man who was apparently shot away from the line of fire. Others removed another body.
The army then started shooting at the crowd. The streets quickly became deserted, with only the sound of bullets. The stores were closed.
The armed clash could derail the month-long government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati even before it begins to tackle Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.
A Cabinet meeting was called off on Wednesday after Hezbollah called for urgent government action against the judge. A minister allied with Hezbollah said he and other Cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar was not impeached.
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