By ZEINA KARAM and SARAH EL DEEB
BEIRUT (AP) – Armed clashes erupted in Beirut on Thursday during a protest organized by Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the senior judge investigating last year’s explosion in the city’s port. At least six people have been killed and dozens injured in the city’s most prolonged and violent street fighting in years, authorities said.
The firefight along a former frontline of the 1975-90 Civil War involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and was reminiscent of that conflict. Shots echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances, screaming sirens, rushed to pick up the wounded. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated the windows of apartments in the neighborhood.
What sparked the violence on Thursday was not immediately clear.
Tensions were high after Iran-backed Hezbollah militia and its Shiite allies in the Amal movement demanded the impeachment of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at the port. The two sides called for demonstrations near the Palace of Justice, located along the old front line between the Shia Muslim and Christian neighborhoods.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed on rooftops.
The violence unfolded as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town meeting with Lebanese officials. His schedule was slightly disrupted by the action on the streets.
Nuland later said at an airport press conference that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in an apparent criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port explosion deserve no less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence clearly shows what the stakes are.
Bitar’s impeachment demands and calls for a protest angered many who saw it as a blatant interference in the work of justice.
The right wing of the Lebanese Christian Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal 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.
As the clashes erupted, an Associated Press reporter saw a man opening fire with a pistol and gunmen firing at protesters from a balcony of a building. Several men immediately fell under the gunshots and bled in the street. 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.
Lebanese authorities said at least six people were killed and 30 injured. An emergency staff member at al-Sahel hospital said they received three bodies and 15 injured people. One of the dead, a woman, was shot in the head. Two of the 15 injured were in critical condition.
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.
The students gathered in the central hallways with the windows open to avoid a major impact, in scenes reminiscent of the Civil War. Smoke covered the neighborhood where intense gunfire was incessant. A car caught fire, while a fire was reported in a lower floor where residents were stranded and called for help.
Sporadic gunfire continued even after army troops were deployed to the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area escaped to avoid the shooting. Someone shouted: “Martyrs on the ground! People shot a man who was apparently shot away from the line of fire. Others removed another body.
In some videos circulating online, men were discussing “Shiite Shiite” in the streets, as residents fled the gunfire.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil war”.
The court’s investigation covers hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored in a port warehouse that 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 is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation – his predecessor was removed from his post following legal challenges. Today, Bitar faces formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of choosing politicians to question them, most of them allied with Hezbollah.
None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.
The tensions over the port explosion add to Lebanon’s huge multiple problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial collapse, an energy crisis resulting in prolonged power outages, hyperinflation and growing poverty.
Beirut resident xx Chemaly, who runs a local NGO that provides social services, accused Lebanese leaders of dragging the country into civil war, saying it was “the last card they should use.”
“They have (driven) us into bankruptcy, into devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war,” she said.
The armed clash could derail Mikati’s month-long government before it even begins to tackle Lebanon’s 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.
Associated Press reporter Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed reporting.