* Six Shiites killed on the way to protest the explosion
* Hezbollah calls for the dismissal of the investigating judge
* Hezbollah accuses LF Christian forces for killings
* LF denies any involvement: the PM calls for calm
* The shootings take place in the midst of an economic collapse (US Updates, France calls for an impartial investigation; analysis)
By Maha El Dahan, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT, October 14 (Reuters) – Six Shiites were gunned down in Beirut on Thursday in an attack on supporters of Hezbollah and its ally who gathered to demand the dismissal of the judge investigating the blast that ravaged the port of the city last year.
The shooting, which took place on the front lines of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 and evoked scenes reminiscent of that conflict, marks the deadliest civil violence in Beirut since 2008.
It also highlights a worsening crisis linked to the investigation into the catastrophic August 2020 explosion that is undermining government efforts to deal with one of the most dramatic economic collapses in history.
Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shiite movement Amal, accused the Lebanese Forces (FL), a Christian party with close ties to Saudi Arabia, of mounting the attack.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.
The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which they attributed to Hezbollah’s “incitement” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port explosion, which left 200 people dead. thousands of wounded and devastated parts of Beirut.
After repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that Bitar’s continued investigation would divide the country, the violence can create a pretext to close or suspend a further investigation into the explosion.
FL leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia during the war, said earlier that the shooting was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be preserved.
During the attack, local television stations broadcast images of bullets bouncing off buildings and people running for safety. One of the dead was a woman who was shot while at home, a military source said.
At a nearby school, teachers asked young children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said. A lifeless body was dragged off the streets by passers-by in footage broadcast by al-Jadeed TV.
The military said in a statement that the gunfire targeted protesters as they crossed the Teyouneh roundabout located in an area dividing Shiite Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.
The shooting began in the Christian quarter of Ain el-Remmaneh, where the civil war broke out, before degenerating into an exchange of fire, a military source said.
Interior Minister Mawlawi said all the dead were on one side, i.e. Shiites.
Hezbollah and the Amal movement said groups fired at protesters from rooftops, aimed at their heads in an attack they said was aimed at dragging Lebanon into the conflict.
As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army overwhelmingly deployed in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire on any armed person on the road.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours.
UNITED STATES AND FRANCE REQUEST AN IMPARTIAL SURVEY
The United States and France have said Lebanese justice should be allowed to investigate the port explosion independently and impartially.
“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port explosion deserve no less,” said US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during a visit to Beirut.
“Today’s unacceptable violence makes it clear what the stakes are,” Nuland said, in comments echoed by the French foreign ministry.
Judge Bitar sought to interview a number of senior politicians and security officials, including allies of Hezbollah, suspected of negligence which led to the explosion of the port, caused by a huge amount of nitrate. ammonium and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record.
All denied wrongdoing.
Hezbollah has called for Bitar’s impeachment, accusing him of bias.
Geagea on Wednesday rejected what he described as any submission to Hezbollah’s “intimidation” over Bitar, calling on the Lebanese to prepare for a peaceful strike if the “other side” tries to impose its will by force.
The deadlock over Bitar’s investigation distracts the attention of the newly formed government from addressing a worsening economic crisis, which has plunged more than three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty.
Although none of its members were targeted by the investigation, Hezbollah accused Bitar of conducting a politicized investigation focused only on certain people.
These include some of his closest allies, including figures from the Shiite Amal movement who have held ministerial positions, including former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil who told al-Mayadeen television this week. that the path of inquiry threatened to push Lebanon “towards civil war”.
A court earlier Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against Bitar, according to documents, allowing him to resume his investigation.
The violence is the worst since 2008, when supporters of the Sunni-led government fought in Beirut with armed men loyal to Hezbollah who took to the streets until the government overturned decisions affecting Hezbollah, including by taking action against a telecommunications network operated by the group.
(Reporting by Maha El Dahan, Alaa Kanaan, Laila Bassam, Mohamed Azakir, Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by John Stonestreet and Samia Nakhoul)