By Zeina Karam and Sarah el Deeb | Associated press
BEIRUT – Heavy gunfire erupted in Beirut on Thursday during a protest organized by the Hezbollah group against the judge leading the investigation into last year’s explosion in the city’s port. At least six people have been killed and dozens injured in the most violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital in years.
The exchange of fire along a former frontline of the 1975-90 Civil War involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and was reminiscent of that conflict. Gunshots rang out for hours and ambulances rushed to pick up the injured. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated the windows of apartments in the neighborhood. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
The chaos has raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already plunged into multiple crises, including one of the worst global economic crises of the past 150 years.
It is not known who started the shooting, which began shortly after the start of the protest organized by Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shia allies in the Amal movement against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into the massive explosion of the port last year. Hezbollah and its allies accuse the judge of having chosen politicians to question them, mostly allies of Hezbollah.
Tensions over the port explosion contributed to Lebanon’s many problems, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, growing poverty and an energy crisis resulting in prolonged blackouts.
Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by indicting and summoning some officials and not others. They want it removed.
None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.
The probe focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were improperly stored in a port warehouse that exploded on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts neighboring neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already plagued by political divisions and financial difficulties.
Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation. His predecessor was dismissed from his post following legal challenges.
Shortly before the planned protest on Thursday, an appeals court dismissed a request for Bitar’s impeachment filed by two lawmakers accused in the case, both allies of Hezbollah.
The calls for the judge’s dismissal shocked many people who saw it as a blatant interference in the work of the judiciary.
The right-wing Lebanese Christian Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for demonstrations at the courthouse, located on the old front line separating the predominantly Muslim and Christian neighborhoods of Beirut. Videos circulating on social media Wednesday evening showed supporters of the Lebanese Christian Forces marching through the streets, carrying large crosses.
In a statement Thursday, the two Shiite groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed on rooftops. Among the dead – all Shiites – were two Hezbollah operatives.
The military also said the protesters came under fire, but later that evening an “altercation and exchange of gunfire” took place as the protesters made their way to the courthouse.
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 a press conference at the airport 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 is at stake.
As the clashes erupted, an Associated Press reporter saw a man opening fire with a pistol and gunmen firing at protesters from a balcony. Several men immediately fell and bled in the street. The army sent patrols to the area following gunfire between Muslim and Christian parts of the capital.
The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 30 people were injured. One of the dead, a mother of five, was shot in the head. Hezbollah said it was planning a funeral for the woman and two of her fighters for Friday. Amal, who is headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, has planned a separate funeral for two of its members.
Four projectiles fell near a French private school, Frères de Furn el Chebbak, causing panic. In scenes reminiscent of the Civil War, the students huddled in the central hallways. Smoke covered the neighborhoods which saw incessant gunfire.
The shooting ended about four hours later, after the deployment of army troops.
Youssef Diab, a journalist specializing in court cases, said the protest was intended as a show of force and a message that Hezbollah and Amal are in control of the street. What happened has shown them that they are not the only ones in control of the street.
“There is another street, and facing it could blow up the situation,” Diab said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil war”.
Haneen Chemaly, a resident of Beirut, who runs a local group that provides social services, hid with her 6-month-old baby in the shelter of her apartment building, then to her neighbors. She accused the Lebanese leadership of dragging the country into civil war, saying it was “the last card they were to use.”
“They have (driven) us into bankruptcy, into devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war,” she said.
Michel Younan, a resident of the Ain el-Remeneh neighborhood, inspected his car, the windows and doors of which were smashed during the fighting. “There were protests, and then all of a sudden there was gunfire… Shooting, RPGs, everything,” he said. “Isn’t that a shame? They brought us back to the time of the war.
The clashes 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 Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other members of the Shiite cabinet would stage a walkout if Bitar was not removed, further complicating Mikati’s mission.
Associated Press journalists Hassan Ammar and Fadi Tawil contributed to this report.