BEIRUT – Armed clashes broke out in Beirut on Thursday during a protest organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the chief judge investigating last year’s explosion in the city’s port. At least six people were killed and dozens injured in the city’s longest and most violent street clashes in years, authorities said.
The exchanges of fire along a former front line from the 1975-90 civil war involved handguns, automatic rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades, and were reminiscent of that conflict. Shots rang out in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens howling, rushed to pick up the wounded. Snipers fired from buildings. The bullets penetrated the windows of the apartments in the area.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the violence on Thursday.
Tensions rose after Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies in the Amal Movement demanded the removal of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the massive port explosion last year. The two sides called for a protest near the Palace of Justice, located along the former front line between the Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters were attacked by snipers on rooftops.
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 altered by the action on the streets.
Nuland later told a news conference at the airport that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in apparent criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port explosion deserve no less,” he said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what is at stake.”
Bitar’s impeachment demands and calls for protests upset many who saw it as a flagrant intervention in the work of the judiciary.
Right-wing Lebanese Christian Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday night after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Palace of Justice, located in a Christian area. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Lebanese Christian Forces marching through the streets carrying large crosses.
When the clashes broke out, an Associated Press reporter saw a man open fire with a pistol and gunmen firing in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. Several men immediately fell from the gunfire and bled on the street. The army was very deployed and sent patrols to the area to search for the gunmen, following exchanges of fire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital.
Lebanese authorities said at least six people were killed and 30 injured. A staff member of the al-Sahel hospital emergency room said they received three bodies and 15 wounded people. One of the dead, a woman, had been shot in the head. Two of the injured were in critical condition.
Four shells landed near a private French school, Freres de Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, said a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The students huddled in the central corridors with the windows open to avoid large impacts, in scenes reminiscent of the civil war. Smoke covered the neighborhood where the intense gunfire was relentless. A car caught fire, while a lower-floor fire was reported where residents were trapped and called for help.
The sporadic shooting continued even after army troops deployed to the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area ducked to avoid the shooting. Someone shouted: “Some martyrs on the ground!” People pushed a man out of the line of fire who was apparently shot and knocked down. Others took another body.
In some videos circulating online, some men were chatting: “Shiite Shiite” in the streets, while residents fled the shooting.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil strife.”
The judicial investigation focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored in a port warehouse that detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has further devastated the country, already shaken by political divisions and an unprecedented economic and financial collapse.
Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation: his predecessor was removed from office after legal challenges. Now Bitar has faced formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allies of Hezbollah.
None of the Hezbollah officials have been charged so far in the 14-month investigation.
The tensions over the port explosion are adding to Lebanon’s multiple huge problems, including an unprecedented economic and financial collapse, an energy crisis leading to prolonged power outages, hyperinflation and rising poverty.
Haneen Chemaly, a Beirut resident who runs a local NGO that provides social services, accused Lebanon’s leaders of leading the country into civil war, saying it is “the last card they have to use.”
“They have (driven) us to bankruptcy, to devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war,” he said.
The armed confrontation could derail the Mikati government of a month ago even before it begins to tackle Lebanon’s economic collapse.
A cabinet meeting was canceled on Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. A Hezbollah allied minister said he and other cabinet members would stage a strike if Bitar is not eliminated.
Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed to this report.