Six people have died and more than a dozen others have been injured in armed clashes that erupted in Beirut during a protest demanding an end to a judicial inquiry into last year’s massive explosion in the city’s port.
The deployment of soldiers failed to stem the violence, which took on a sectarian tone. The fighting took place near a front line of the civil war in which militias from the Maronite Christian and Shia Muslim blocs have already clashed.
The rally was led by members of Amal and Hezbollah, two Shiite-majority political parties whose respective leaders – Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, and Hassan Nasrallah – increasingly opposed the investigation into the explosion, which is led by a judge, Tarek Bitar. It was not immediately clear how the shooting had started.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers opened fire and aimed people at the heads. All the dead were on one side, he said, that is, the Shiites.
Earlier Thursday, a court rejected a second attempt to deport Bitar, the investigation of which is seen by many Lebanese as a landmark event for the crippled state, which has made little progress in establishing the culprits of the one of the biggest accidents at work. in modern history.
The Port of Beirut was a microcosm of the politics of Lebanon, which is ruled by fiefdoms and beset by rampant corruption that has led it to bankruptcy. The actors behind the port gates were loyal to the political masters who had remained in charge since the end of the Civil War.
The catastrophic explosion of August 4, 2020 was caused by the ignition of up to 2,750 tonnes of military-grade ammonium nitrate after a fire, believed to have been caused by welding work. The fireball destroyed the bulk terminal and much of the surrounding neighborhoods, killing at least 215 people. It has led to calls for an end to the political impunity that has characterized Lebanon since the signing of the pact to end the war.
However, demands that all aspects of the explosion be investigated seem almost impossible to keep, with ministers summoned for investigation refusing to appear, others taking legal action against Bitar and even more directly linked to allegations of negligence not being involved at all. Beyond that, any regional dimension, a source of speculation for a long time, seems far beyond the capacity of the judge to explore.
On Thursday, supporters of the two Shiite movements gathered near the courthouse to demand Bitar’s replacement. Protesters were mobilized via social media forums Wednesday night and a scorching speech from Nasrallah, who called for an “honest” judge to replace Bitar.
Likewise, Ali Hasan Khalil, deputy for Amal, warned against a “political escalation” if Bitar was not sidelined. He had received an arrest warrant along with two other ministers.
Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s new government is under increasing pressure from both sides to either drop the investigation or replace the senior judge. A previous judge was sacked after clashing with politicians.
Hezbollah and Amal both called on their supporters not to escalate tensions as gunmen entered the area. The Lebanese army reinforced its presence throughout the afternoon.
“We are so deeply polarized,” said Mazen Khoury, a resident of the nearby Badaro neighborhood. “Christians are the ones who lost the most in the explosion of the port, their homes and their future. It is suspected that other parties have caused this and changed the face of the country. What is happening today reflects this.