Hassan Ammar / AP
BEIRUT – Armed clashes erupted Thursday during a demonstration in Beirut by militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the senior judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in the city’s port. Five people were killed and 16 were injured, the Lebanese interior minister said.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said many victims were shot dead by snipers from buildings.
“It is a very dangerous sign,” Mawlawi told reporters. “No one can take this.”
The exchanges of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have been a serious escalation of tension over the national investigation and the worst armed clashes since 2008, when Shiite Hezbollah briefly invaded parts of Beirut.
It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s clashes began. The Hezbollah group and its Shiite allies in the Amal militia had called for demonstrations near the courthouse, along a former front line of the civil war between the Shiite Muslim and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed on rooftops in the Tayouneh region.
Shots resounded 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. 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.
Students clustered in central hallways with windows open to avoid major impact, in scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 Civil War. Smoke covered the neighborhood where intense gunfire was incessant. A car caught on fire, while a fire was reported in a lower floor where residents were stranded and called for help.
The violence unfolded while 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.
Bitar’s demands for impeachment and calls for a protest have upset many.
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.
An Associated Press reporter saw a man opening fire with a pistol during the protest, as well as gunmen firing at protesters from a balcony of a building. Several men immediately fell to the gunfire and bled on the tarmac. The army has deployed massively and sent patrols to the region to search for the armed men, following an exchange of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian parts of the capital.
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.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil war”.
The probe focuses on 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, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has met overwhelming opposition from the powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah and its allies who accuse him of choosing politicians to interview them, mostly allies of Hezbollah.
None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.
The shooting continued even after army troops deployed to the area on Thursday, with the sound of gunfire over their heads. Residents and civilians in the area dodged to avoid the fire, some shouting: “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.
Haneen Chemaly, a resident of Furn el-Chebbak and mother of a 6-month-old girl, said she first moved down the hall before running to the shelter because the sound of gunfire was terrifying from his 10th floor apartment.
“I did it for my child,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I can just hear the sound of gunfire.”
She said there was no electricity so she could watch what was going on on TV. She therefore did not know anything about the situation on the ground and opted for safety. After spending some time at the shelter, she moved to the first floor to stay with her neighbors away from the fire.
“I know there was so much mobilization the day before, all predicting that a war would break out,” Chemaly, who runs a local NGO that provides social services. The eruption of civil war “is the last card they have to use. They have (driven) us into bankruptcy, devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war.”
The armed clash could derail the month-long government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati even before it begins to tackle Lebanon’s unprecedented 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.