6 killed in Beirut clashes as tensions escalate over explosion investigation – The Denver Post
Written by Zina Karam and Sarah El-Deeb
Armed clashes erupted Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Lebanese group Hezbollah and its allies against the main judge who investigated last year’s explosion in the city’s port. Authorities said at least six people were killed and dozens injured in the most violent and protracted street fighting in the city in years.
The shootouts along the former front line of the 1975-90 Civil War included pistols, automatic rifles, and RPGs, and were reminiscent of this conflict. The shooting echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances and sirens rushed to transport the victims. Snipers fired from buildings. Bullets penetrated the windows of apartments in the area.
It was not immediately clear what caused the violence on Thursday.
Tensions escalated after Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal movement demanded the dismissal of Tariq Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. The two parties called for a demonstration near the Palace of Justice, located on the former front line between Shiite and Christian areas.
The two groups said in a statement on Thursday that the protesters came under fire from snipers on the rooftops.
The violence erupted when the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly canceled due to the events on the streets.
Nuland later said at an airport news conference that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in what appears to be a criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less, and the victims and families of those who were lost in the port explosion deserve no less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the risks are.”
The demands to remove Bitar and the calls for protest bothered many who considered them a blatant interference in the work of the judiciary.
The right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized their supporters on Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and the Amal movement called for a demonstration at the Palace of Justice, located in a Christian district. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets carrying large crosses.
As the clashes erupted, an Associated Press journalist saw a man shooting with a pistol and gunmen shooting toward protesters from the balcony of a building. Several men fell instantly from the gunfire and bled out in the street. The army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to search for the militants after the exchange of fire between the Muslim and Christian sides in the capital.
Lebanese authorities said at least six people were killed and 30 wounded. A worker in the emergency room at Sahel Hospital said they received 3 dead bodies and 15 wounded. One of the dead was a woman who was shot in the head. Two of the injured are in critical condition.
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that four shells landed near a private French school, Frer Al-Shabak, causing panic.
Students crowded the central corridors with the windows open to avoid too much impact, in scenes reminiscent of the Civil War. Smoke covered the neighborhood in which there was a heavy, relentless gunfire. A car caught fire, while a fire was reported in a basement where residents got stuck and called for help.
Sporadic shooting continued even after the army deployed in the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area were dodging to avoid the shooting. Someone shouted: Martyrs on the ground! People pulled a man who had been shot and apparently fell, out of the line of fire. Others pulled another corpse.
In some videos circulating online, some men were speaking: “Shiite Shia” in the streets, while residents were fleeing from the bullets.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into a civil war.”
The court’s investigation focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a port warehouse that exploded on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and added to the devastation of a country already reeling from political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial collapse.
Bitar is the second judge to lead the complex investigation – his predecessor was removed after legal objections. Now, Bitar has faced fierce opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of whom are allied with Hezbollah.
No charges have yet been brought against any Hezbollah officials in the 14-month investigation.
Tensions over the port explosion add to Lebanon’s multiple massive problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial collapse, an energy crisis that has led to extended power outages, hyperinflation and extreme poverty.
Beirut-based Hanin Chemali, who heads a local NGO providing social services, accused Lebanon’s leaders of steering the country into civil war, saying it was “the last card they have to use”.
“They (they pushed us) into bankruptcy and destruction and now they scare us with the specter of civil war,” she said.
The armed clash could derail the month-old Mikati government, even before it begins to address Lebanon’s economic collapse.
Wednesday’s cabinet session was canceled after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. One of the ministers allied with Hezbollah said that he and other members of the government would leave if Bitar was not removed.
Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed to this report.