At least six Shiites were shot and killed in Beirut on Thursday in an attack on protesters who were heading for a demonstration called by Hezbollah to demand the removal of the judge investigating the explosion that swept through the city’s port last year.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of organizing the attack, which took place on a decade-long front line. from 1975-90. civil war.
The shooting marks the worst civil violence in Beirut since 2008 and highlights a deepening crisis over the investigation of the catastrophic explosion in August 2020 that is undermining the government’s efforts to address one of the most dramatic economic crises in the history.
LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia in the war, condemned the shooting and said it was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying that civil peace must be preserved.
In scenes reminiscent of the war, local television stations broadcast images of bullets ricocheting off buildings and people running for cover. One of the dead was a woman who was hit by a bullet while at her home, a military source said.
The army said in a statement that the shots had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh roundabout, located in an area that divides Shiite Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.
The shooting started in the Christian quarter of Ain el-Remmaneh before turning into a shooting, a military source said.
Call for calm after sniper fire
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said the snipers had opened fire and were targeting people’s heads. All the dead were from one side, he said, referring to the Shiites.
Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement, said groups had fired at protesters from rooftops, targeting their heads in an attack that they said was aimed at dragging Lebanon into conflict.
Hezbollah, a heavily armed group backed by Iran, has called for investigating judge Tarek Bitar to be removed from the investigation of the port explosion, accusing him of bias.
On Wednesday, Geagea rejected what he described as a submission to Hezbollah’s “intimidation” of Bitar, and called on the Lebanese to be prepared for a peaceful strike if the “other party” tries to impose their will by force.
When Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army was largely 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, along with several explosions that appeared to be rocket-propelled grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
Political tensions have been building up over the investigation into the port explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated areas of Beirut.
The standoff over the investigation is diverting the newly formed government’s attention from tackling a deepening economic crisis, which has plunged more than three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty.
The judge has tried to question several high-ranking politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, which was caused by a large amount of ammonium nitrate.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Although none of its members have been the target of the investigation, Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized investigation that focused solely on certain individuals.
These include some of his closest allies, including high-level figures in the Shia Amal Movement who held ministerial positions.
On Thursday, a court dismissed a legal complaint against Bitar, documents showed, allowing him to resume his investigation.
The violence is the worst since 2008, when supporters of the Sunni-led government fought battles in Beirut with gunmen loyal to Hezbollah, who took to the streets for government decisions affecting the group.