Armed clashes broke out in Beirut Thursday during a demonstration organized by Hezbollah, a militant Lebanese group, and its allies against a judge who was investigating the blast at the port of the city last year. Authorities said that at least six people were killed in the worst street fighting in the city’s history. Several others were also injured in the ongoing and violent street fighting.
These firefights along the former front line of the 1975-90 civil conflict involved guns, rocket-propelled and automatic rifles. They were reminiscent of that conflict. For several hours, gunfire was heard in the capital of Lebanon, and ambulances raced to take care of injured. Snipers fired from buildings. Apartment windows were broken by bullets in the vicinity.
The exact cause of Thursday’s violence was not immediately known. Both sides claimed that their protesters were under attack from snipers from rooftops.
Tensions were high after Iran-backed Hezbollah demanded that Tarek Bitar be removed from his investigation into the massive port explosion of last year. Both parties demanded a protest at the Justice Palace, which is located near the former border between Christian and Muslim Shiite areas.
While the U.S. was in town, violence broke out. The violence took place while U.S. The street action caused a slight disruption to her schedule.
In apparent criticism of Hezbollah, Nuland stated that an impartial judiciary was the guarantor for all rights at an airport news conference. She stated that the Lebanese people and those who lost their loved ones in the port blast deserve nothing less. “Today’s unacceptable violence is a clear indication of the stakes.”
Many considered Bitar’s demands and protests to be blatant interference in the work the judiciary.
After Amal and Hezbollah called for protests at the Justice Palace in a Christian area, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces rallied supporters Wednesday evening. Social media videos showed Christian Lebanese Forces supporters marching in the streets with large crosses.
A journalist from The Associated Press witnessed a man with a pistol open fire and gunmen firing in the direction protesters from the balcony. Many men were injured in the melee and fell to their deaths from the gunfire. After the fighting between Christians and Muslims in the capital, the army sent heavily armed patrols to the area.
According to Lebanese authorities, at least six people died and thirty were injured. According to a staff member at al-Sahel’s emergency room, they had received three bodies and fifteen people with injuries. One of the victims, a woman, had been shot in the head. Two of the wounded were in critical condition.
A security official claimed that four projectiles were dropped near Freres de Furn el Chebbak’s private French school, causing panic. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media.
Students huddled together in central corridors, with their windows wide open in order to avoid any major impact. This scene was reminiscent of civil war. The neighborhood was surrounded by smoke and there was constant gunfire. A car caught on fire and a blaze was reported at a lower level where residents were trapped and needed help.
Even after the arrival of army troops on Thursday, there was still widespread shooting. Residents and civilians were running to escape the gunfire. One person shouted, “Some martyrs on ground!” People pulled one victim, who had apparently been shot and taken away from the fire. Another body was pulled away by others.
Some videos online show men shouting “Shiite Shiite” as residents fled the gunfire.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a statement urging calm and caution, and asking people not to get “dragged into civil war.”
The investigation centers on hundreds upon tons of ammonium-nitrates improperly stored in a port warehouse. It exploded on August 4, 2020 killing at least 215 people and injuring thousands more. This was the worst non-nuclear nuclear explosion in American history. It has further ruined a country already plagued by political divisions, unprecedented economic and financial meltdowns, and has caused more destruction.
Bitar is now the second judge to oversee the complex investigation. His predecessor was forced out by legal challenges. Bitar is now facing formidable opposition from Hezbollah and its allies, who accuse Bitar of questioning politicians. Most of these politicians are allied to Hezbollah.
The 14-month-old investigation has not led to any charges against Hezbollah officials.
Tensions over the port explosion add to Lebanon’s many problems, including an unprecedented financial and economic meltdown, an energy crisis that leads to prolonged electricity blackouts, hyperinflation, and soaring poverty.
Haneen Chemaly from Beirut, head of a local NGO that provides social services, has accused Lebanon’s leaders to steering Lebanon into civil war. She said it was “the last card they can use.”
She said, “They (have) driven us into bankruptcy, destruction and now they’re scaring us with fear of civil war.”
Nuland stated that she was visiting Mikati to support her new government. She urged for reforms to be implemented by the government at Beirut’s airport press conference.
However, the armed clash could make Mikati’s government unsustainable for a month, even though it is trying to tackle Lebanon’s economic crisis.
After Hezbollah demanded that the government take immediate action against Bitar, Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting was cancelled. Mikati’s mission is further complicated by the statement of a Hezbollah-allied minister that Bitar would be removed if he wasn’t removed.