By Zina Karam and Sara Al-Deeb.
BEIRUT (AP) – Hezbollah groups in Beirut opened fire Thursday during a protest against a judge investigating last year’s bombing of the city’s port. At least six people have been killed and dozens injured in years of violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital.
The exchange of fire along the former front line during the 1975-90 civil war involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, reminiscent of the conflict. Firing continued for hours, and ambulances arrived to pick up the wounded. Snipers were shot from buildings. In the area, bullets entered the windows of the apartment. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
Chaos has signaled a return to sectarian violence in a country already embroiled in several crises, including one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years.
It was not immediately clear who started the firing, which began shortly after Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies began protesting against Amal Movement judge Tariq Batar, which began on a large scale last year. Are leading an investigation into the port explosion. Hezbollah and its allies accuse the judge of gathering politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.
Tensions over the port blast have contributed to many of Lebanon’s woes, including currency depreciation, hyperinflation, rising poverty and the energy crisis that has led to increased power outages.
Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Batar for several days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by charging and summoning some officials. They want to remove it.
No Hezbollah official has been charged in the 14-month investigation.
Investigations focus on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored in a port warehouse on August 4, 2020. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already plagued by political divisions and financial woes.
Batar is the second judge to lead a complex investigation. His predecessor was removed following legal challenges.
On Thursday, shortly before the planned protest, an appeals court rejected a request to remove Batar from his post, filed by two lawmakers, both allies of Hezbollah.
The demand for the removal of the judge upset many who saw it as a clear interference in the work of the judiciary.
Lebanese right-wing Christian Lebanese forces protested Wednesday evening at the Insaf Mahal, on the former front line separating Muslim and Christian areas in Beirut, following calls for protests by Hezbollah and Amal. Videos circulating on social media on Wednesday night showed supporters of Christian Lebanese forces marching through the streets carrying large crosses.
In a statement on Thursday, both Shiite groups said their protesters were set on fire by snipers stationed on rooftops. Among those killed – all Shiites – were two members of Hezbollah.
The army also said protesters opened fire, but later in the evening said there was a “fight and exchange of fire” as protesters marched on Insaf Palace.
The violence erupted while US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in the city meeting with Lebanese officials. His schedule was a bit off the beaten track.
Nuland later told a news conference at the airport that an impartial judiciary was the guarantor of all rights, apparently criticizing Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people do not deserve less, and the families of those killed in the port blast do not deserve less,” he said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
As the clashes erupted, an Associated Press reporter saw a man firing from a balcony at protesters with pistols and rifles. Many men immediately fell and blood flowed on the road. The army patrolled the area after gunfire erupted between Muslim and Christian factions in the capital.
The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 30 people were injured. One of the dead, a mother of five, was shot in the head. Hezbollah said it planned a final rites for the woman and her two fighters on Friday. Amal, chaired by the Speaker of Parliament Nabi Beri, planned separate funerals for his two members.
The four projectiles crashed near a private French school, the Ferrero-Waldner, and spread panic. In scenes reminiscent of the Civil War, students stormed the main corridors. The smoke covered the neighborhoods where gunfire was heard.
The firing ended about four hours after the deployment of troops.
Yousuf Deb, a journalist specializing in judicial affairs, said the protest was aimed at demonstrating power and sending a message that Hezbollah and Amal control the road. What happened showed that they are not the only ones controlling the street.
“There is another street, and facing it can blow up the situation on a large scale,” Deb said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people not to “drag civilians into fighting.”
Haneen Chamli, a Beirut resident who heads a local group that provides social services, hid with her 6-month-old baby in the shelter of her building and then in her neighbour’s house. He accused Lebanese leaders of pushing the country towards civil war, saying “this is the last card they have to use.”
“They have pushed us to bankruptcy, to destruction, and now they are threatening us with civil war,” he said.
Michelle Yunan, a resident of the Ain al-Raymana neighborhood, inspected her car, which had broken windows and doors during the fight. “There were demonstrations and then all of a sudden the firing started … shooting, RPG, everything,” he said. “Isn’t that a shame? They brought us back to the days of war.
The clashes could derail Mekati’s monthly government before it can deal with Lebanon’s economic woes.
A cabinet meeting was canceled on Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded immediate government action against the judge. A Hezbollah-affiliated minister said that if Betar was not removed, he and other members of the Shiite cabinet would walk out, further complicating Makati’s mission.
Associated Press journalists Hassan Ammar and Fadi Tawil contributed to the report.