At least six people were killed and dozens injured after heavy gunfire broke out in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, after a protest rally turned violent.
Tank deployments and deadly exchanges of gunfire turned Beirut into a war zone after a demonstration organized by Shiite parties against the lead investigator in last year’s devastating port explosion turned violent.
According to Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, at least six people were killed, all by gunfire.
Among them was a 24-year-old girl who was hit in the head by a stray bullet while inside her home, said a doctor at the Sahel hospital in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
The Lebanese Red Cross estimated the number of injured at 30.
Intense fire was heard as ambulances rushed the injured through deserted streets a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, where hundreds of black-clad protesters had gathered moments earlier to demand the removal of Tarek Bitar.
In recent days, the judge has been in the crosshairs of the Hezbollah and Amal parties in particular for insisting on citing senior officials in his investigation into last year’s deadly explosion in the port of Beirut.
Rescuers removed an inert body lying on a main street as shots rained down around it, correspondents said.
Residents cowered in hallways away from windows, as some were ripped apart by gunfire. Some ran towards ambulances as civil defense volunteers tried to evacuate civilians, including young children.
Images circulating on social media showed children at a nearby school ducking under desks and gathering on the ground outside of classrooms.
“I am with my cousin and my aunt, and we hide in a two-square-meter space between rooms because we are afraid of stray bullets,” said Bissan al-Fakih, who lives a few hundred meters (yards) away. away from the fighting.
“We wonder if we could go, but we are not sure there is a way out.” Another resident said he hid in a hallway for two hours before he managed to find a taxi to get him out.
“I can’t handle these loud sounds, especially RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), it’s the trauma from the Beirut explosion coming back again,” said the resident, who gave his name only as Samer.
The army reported “rounds of gunfire in the Tayouneh – Badaro area”, a mostly residential area of the capital.
“The army rushed to cordon off the area and deploy in its neighborhoods and its entrance. The patrols began and the search for the shooters to stop them, ”he said.
In a follow-up statement, the military warned that it would open fire on anyone firing actual rounds, asking civilians to evacuate the area.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm to be restored and warned against attempts to drag Lebanon into violence.
In a statement, Hezbollah and Amal accused “armed and organized groups” of attacking their supporters.
“They were exposed to direct sniper fire … followed by intense gunfire,” they said in a joint statement.
They said the violence was deliberate and was aimed at dragging the country into violence, while calling on their supporters to remain calm and calm down.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV blamed the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party staunchly opposed to the Iranian-backed group.
AFP could not independently verify the claims.
Seen as a last hope for justice by many Lebanese, but condemned as biased and corrupt by political leaders, Bitar has caused deep divisions within the government between those who want to keep him in his place and those who pressure him to leave.
The Court of Cassation on Thursday rejected a lawsuit filed by two former ministers demanding their replacement, a judicial official said on condition of anonymity.
“Bitar is not under the jurisdiction of the court, so it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal,” the official said.
It is the second time this month that the judiciary has ruled in favor of the judge, who is hailed by human rights groups and families of blast victims as a symbol of judicial independence in a country where political impunity has long been the norm. .
The ruling, which will take effect immediately, would allow Bitar to resume investigations into the August 4, 2020 explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large swaths of the capital.
But the investigator’s fate is almost clear, as Hezbollah and Amal press ahead with a campaign aimed at ousting him.
Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah on Monday called for an “honest” judge to replace Bitar.
Tensions spilled over into the cabinet with a meeting on Tuesday that ended in a row as ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal pressed the government to support their demand to replace Bitar.
A follow-up session scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, indicating that no agreement has been reached between the factions in the cabinet, with some ministers arguing that the government should not intervene in judicial matters.
Originally posted as Beirut streets turn into war zone as gunfire erupts in protest