5 killed during protest over judge in Beirut blast probe

Armed clashes erupted Thursday during a protest organized by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s enormous explosion in the city’s port. At least five people were killed and dozens more were wounded in some of most serious fighting in the Lebanese capital in years, authorities said.

The hours-long exchange of fire on a former front line of Lebanon’s protracted civil war involved snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, and was reminiscent of the 1975-90 conflict. The clashes were the worst since 2008, when Hezbollah briefly overran parts of Beirut.

The violence unfolded while U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly thrown off by the action on the streets.

It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s clashes began, but tensions were running high after Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement demanded the removal of the judge leading the investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, blast at Beirut’s port. The two parties called for a protest near the Justice Palace, along a former civil war front line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.

In a statement Thursday, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed on rooftops in the Tayouneh area.

Gunfire echoed in the capital for several hours, and ambulances, sirens wailing, rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area. Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Freres of Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, a security official said, speaking 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 major impact. Smoke covered the neighborhood, where intense gunfire was relentless. A car caught fire, while a blaze was reported in a lower floor where residents were stuck and called for help.

Haneen Chemaly, a resident of Furn el-Chebbak and mother of a 6-month-old girl, said she first moved to the corridor before running to the shelter because the sound of gunfire was terrifying from her 10th-floor apartment.

“I did it for my child,” she said. “I don’t know what is happening. I can just hear the sound of gunfire.”

The demands for Judge Tarek Bitar’s removal and calls for protest upset many who considered it blatant intervention in the work of the judiciary.

The right wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for the protest at the Justice Palace, which sits in a Christian area. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.

An Associated Press journalist saw a man open fire with a pistol during Thursday’s protest, as well as gunmen shooting in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. Several men fell immediately from the gunfire and bled on the street. The army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to search for the gunmen, following the exchanges of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital.

A staffer at the emergency room at Sahel hospital said they received three bodies and 15 people who were injured. One of the dead, a woman, had received a bullet to the head. Two of the 15 injured were in critical condition.

In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati — in office for barely a month — appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”

The blast investigation centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored in a port warehouse and that detonated, 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 a country roiled by political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.

Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation— his predecessor was removed following legal challenges. Now, Bitar has come up against formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.

None of Hezbollah’s officials have been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.

Sporadic shooting continued even after army troops were deployed to the area Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area were ducking to avoid the shooting. Someone screamed: “Some martyrs on the ground!” People pulled away from the line of fire one man who had apparently been shot. Others pulled another body away.

The armed clash could derail Mikati’s new government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s economic meltdown.

A Cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. One Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other Cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar wasn’t removed.

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