5 killed in Beirut during protest over judge in blast probe

5 killed in Beirut during protest over judge in blast probe

BEIRUT (NWN) – Armed clashes occurred Thursday during a protest by Hezbollah and its allies against the chief judge who investigated last year’s port bombing. Authorities said at least five people were killed and dozens injured in the largest fighting in recent years.

An hour-long firefight on the former front line of the 1975-90 civil war, involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, was reminiscent of that conflict. These were the worst armed clashes since 2008, when Shiite Hezbollah briefly captured parts of Beirut.

It was not immediately clear how the clashes began on Thursday, but tensions escalated after Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite Amal allies demanded the removal of a judge investigating a massive port bombing last year. Both sides called for a protest outside the Palace of Justice, along the former frontline of the civil war between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.

In a statement released Thursday, both groups said their protesters were fired upon by snipers stationed over rooftops in the Tayuneh area.

For several hours, shooting echoed in the capital, and ambulances, howling sirens, rushed to pick up the wounded. Snipers were shooting from buildings. Bullets pierced the windows of apartments in this area. Four shells fell near the private French school Freres of Furn el Chebbak, sparking panic, a security official said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the press.

Students huddled in central corridors with open windows to avoid being hit hard, in scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war. Smoke covered the surroundings, where intense shooting continued. A car caught fire, and a fire was reported on the lower floor, where residents were stuck and called for help.

Khanin Chemali, a resident of Furn-el-Chebbak and mother of a six-month-old girl, said that she first went out into the corridor and then fled to a shelter because the shots were horrific from her apartment on the 10th floor.

“I did it for my child,” she said. “I do not know what’s happening. I just hear the sound of gunshots. ”

The violence erupted when US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly interfered with by street actions.

Demands to remove Bitar and calls for protests frustrated many who saw this as flagrant interference with the judiciary.

Right-wing Christian Lebanese forces mobilized their supporters Wednesday night after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Palace of Justice, located in the Christian district. Videos shared on social media show supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching through the streets with large crosses.

An Associated Press reporter saw a man open fire with a pistol during a protest on Thursday and saw gunmen shoot at protesters from the balcony of a building. Several people immediately fell from the shot and bled to death right on the street. Following skirmishes between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital, the army deployed and sent patrols to the area to search for militants.

An emergency room worker at Al-Sahel hospital said they received three bodies and 15 people who were injured. One of the victims, a woman, was shot in the head. Two of the 15 wounded were in critical condition.

In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to get involved in civil strife.”

The probe focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that were improperly stored at the port’s warehouse, which exploded on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of the surrounding area. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already shaken by political divisions and an unprecedented economic and financial crisis.

Bitar is the second judge leading a complex investigation – his predecessor was suspended from legal proceedings. Bitar now faces formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah and its allies, who accuse him of choosing politicians, most of whom are Hezbollah allies, to interrogate.

So far, no Hezbollah official has been charged in a 14-month investigation.

Sporadic shooting continued even after army troops were deployed to the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area dived to avoid gunfire. Someone shouted: “Martyrs on earth!” The men dragged one man, who had apparently been shot, away from the line of fire. Others dragged another body away.

In some videos distributed on the Internet, some of the men were chatting in the streets, “Shiite Shiite,” while residents were running from the fire.

The tension over the port blast exacerbates Lebanon’s immense multiple problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, an energy crisis leading to prolonged power outages, hyperinflation and a sharp rise in poverty.

Chemali said that she didn’t have electricity to watch what was happening on TV. Thus, she knew nothing of the situation on the ground and preferred safety. After spending some time at the shelter, she moved to the second floor to be with her neighbors away from the fire.

“I know there was so much mobilization the night before and everyone was predicting a war would break out,” says Chemali, who heads a local non-governmental organization that provides social services. Civil War breaks out – this is the last card they have to use. They (brought) us to bankruptcy, ruin and now they frighten us with the specter of civil war. “

Armed confrontation could undermine Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, which was in force a month ago, even before it starts to fight the economic crisis in Lebanon.

A cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah urged the government to take urgent action against the judge. One Hezbollah supporter, the minister, said he and other cabinet members would go on strike if Bitar was not removed.

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Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar from Beirut prepared a report.