BEIRUT (AP) – Armed clashes erupted in Beirut on Thursday during a protest against the senior judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in the city’s port, amid tensions over the national inquiry overflowed.
Shots echoed in the capital and ambulances rushed to the scene, sirens blaring, amid reports of casualties.
The demonstration in front of the Palace of Justice was demanded by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, which demand the impeachment of Judge Tarek Bitar.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the gunfire, but tensions were high along a former civil war frontline between Shia Muslim and Christian areas. An Associated Press reporter saw a man opening fire with a pistol during the protest. Another witness said he saw people shooting at protesters from the balcony of a building.
At least two men were seen injured and bleeding. The army was massively deployed in the region after the shooting.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored in a port warehouse 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 armed clash could derail the country’s government for a month before it even started tackling 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 Judge Tarek Bitar was not removed from office.