BEIRUT – Armed clashes erupted on Thursday during protests organized by the terrorist group Hezbollah and its allies against the chief justice probing last year’s port blasts in the city. Officials said at least five people were killed and dozens wounded in the biggest fighting in years.
Hours of gunfights on a former frontline of the 1975–90 Civil War that included snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades were reminiscent of that conflict. It was the deadliest armed conflict since 2008, when Shia Hezbollah briefly occupied parts of Beirut.
It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s clashes began, but tensions were rising after Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies demanded the removal of the judge who led the investigation into last year’s massive port blasts . Both sides called for protests near the Justice Palace, along the front lines of a former civil war between Muslim Shia and Christian regions.
In a statement on Thursday, both groups said their demonstrators were fired upon by snipers stationed on rooftops in the Tayouneh area.
Fighters of the Shia Hezbollah and Amal movements target during a clash in Tayouneh, a southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on October 14, 2021. (Photo via Anwar Amro/AFP Getty Images)
Gunshots were heard in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens were sounding to take casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. The bullets entered the windows of the apartments in the area. Four projectiles fell near a private French school, the Frres of Fern el Chebab, causing panic, as he was not authorized to speak to the press, a security official said on condition of anonymity.
In scenes reminiscent of the Civil War of 1975–90, students hid in central corridors with windows to avoid major impact. There was a plume of smoke in that locality where bullets were being fired continuously. A car caught fire, while a fire was reported in the ground floor where residents were trapped and called for help.
Hanin Chemali, a resident of Farn al-Chebak and mother of a 6-month-old baby girl, said she walked down the corridor before running for shelter because the gunshots from her 10th-floor apartment were terrifying.
“I did it for my baby,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I can only hear gunshots.”
The violence took place when US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was meeting with Lebanese officials in the city. His schedule was slightly spoiled by the action on the streets.
The demand for Bitter’s removal and the call for protest upset many who considered it a blatant interference with the working of the judiciary.
Right-wing Christian Lebanese forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for a protest at the Justice Palace in the Christian region. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of Christian Lebanese forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.
A reporter for The Associated Press saw a man fire a pistol during Thursday’s protest, as gunmen fired in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. Many people fell immediately from the bullets and were bleeding on the road. After exchanges of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital, the army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to search for the gunmen.
An emergency room worker at Al-Sahel Hospital said they had found three bodies and that 15 people were injured. One of the dead was shot in the head. Two of the 15 injured are in critical condition.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife”.
The investigation centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, which was improperly stored in a port warehouse on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying surrounding areas. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has devastated the country with political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.
Bitter is the second judge to lead the complex investigation – his predecessor was removed after legal challenges. Now Bitter has come up against fierce opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, who accuse them of ousting politicians for questioning, most of them affiliated with Hezbollah.
No Hezbollah official has been charged so far in the 14-month-old investigation.
On Thursday, sporadic firing continued even after the deployment of Army personnel in the area. Residents and civilians of the area were dodging to avoid firing. Someone shouted: “Some martyr on the ground!” People pulled a man, who had apparently been shot down, away from the line of fire. Others dragged another body.
In some videos circulating online, some men were seen chatting “Shia Shia” on the streets as residents ran from gunfire.
Tensions over the port explosion add to Lebanon’s enormous number of troubles, including an unprecedented economic and financial downturn, an energy crisis caused by extended power blackouts, extreme inflation and rising poverty.
Chemali said that he did not have electricity to watch what was going on on TV. So he knew nothing about the ground situation and opted for security. After spending some time in the shelter, she moved to the first floor with her neighbors to stay away from the fire.
Chemali, who heads a local NGO providing social services, said: “I know there were already such crowds from the night before, everyone was predicting that war would break out.” Civil war erupts “is the last card they have to use. They have thrown us into bankruptcy, catastrophe and now they are scaring us with the ghosts of civil war.”
An armed conflict could derail the country’s months-long government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati before Lebanon’s handling of the economic slowdown begins.
The cabinet meeting on Wednesday was canceled after Hezbollah demanded immediate government action against the judge. A Hezbollah minister said he and other cabinet members would walk out if Beitar was not removed.
Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed reporting.