Beirut: Gunfire killed six people and wounded 30 at a Beirut rally organised by the militant Hezbollah and Amal movements Thursday to demand the dismissal of the lead investigator into last year's port blast.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told a press conference that the death toll had climbed to six. He said that some of the victims where shot in the head. The deaths include a 24-year-old woman who was hit in the head by a stray bullet while inside her home, a doctor at the Sahel hospital in Beirut's southern suburbs told AFP. The Lebanese Red Cross put the number of wounded at at least 30.
AFP correspondents in the area heard heavy gunfire. Lebanese television broadcast images of men carrying rifles and heavy weaponry.
The army reported “bursts of gunfire in the area of Tayouneh - Badaro”. “The army rushed to cordon off the area and deploy in its neighbourhoods and their entrance. Patrols started as did the search for the shooters to detain them,” it said.
The shooting began from the Christian neighbourhood of Ain Al Remmaneh before spiralling into an exchange of fire, a source told Reuters.
Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV said “two martyrs” and a number of wounded had been taken to a hospital in the Shiite southern suburbs, indicating that the casualties were Shiites.
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, in scenes reminiscent of the civil war. Smoke covered the neighbourhood 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.
Sporadic shooting continued even after army troops deployed to the area on Thursday. Residents and civilians in the area were ducking to avoid the shooting. Someone screamed: “Some martyrs on the ground!’’ People pulled one man who was apparently shot and down, away from the line of fire. Others pulled another body away.
In some videos circulating online, some men were chatting: “Shiite Shiite’’ on the streets, as residents were running from the gunfire.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for several hours, along with several explosions which appeared to be rocket propelled-grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
Hezbollah and Amal blamed the clashes on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that is staunchly opposed to the Iran-backed group. "Lebanese Forces fighters spread out on rooftops fired sniper shots with the aim to kill," they said in a joint statement. AFP could not independently verify the claims.
Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea hit back, saying the real reason for the violence was the "widespread proliferation of arms," in reference to Hezbollah's arsenal. Geagea condemned the clashes and called on authorities to launch an investigation.
'Afraid of stray bullets'
In the chaos, residents cowered in corridors away from windows, as some were shattered by the gunfire.
A limp body lying on a main street was carried away by rescuers as gunfire rained around them.
Pictures circulating on social media showed children in a school ducking under desks and gathering on the floor outside classrooms.
"I'm with my cousin and my aunt, and we're hiding in a two-square-metre space between rooms because we are afraid of stray bullets," said Bissan al-Fakih, who lives in the area.
"We're wondering if we could leave, but we're not sure if there is a way out".
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, called the violence "a horrific reminder of unhealed wounds" from the civil war.
In a follow-up statement, the military warned that it would open fire at anyone firing live rounds, calling on civilians to evacuate the area.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm to be restored and warned against attempts to drag Lebanon into violence.
President Michel Aoun vowed that those responsible for Thursday’s gunfire would be held accountable, saying in a televised speech it was “unacceptable that weapons are once more the means of communication among Lebanese rivals”.
Ex-prime minister Saad Hariri said the violence was reminiscent of the civil war and “unacceptable on all levels”.
US, France urge impartial probe; Kuwaitis told to exit Lebanon
The United States and France said Lebanon’s judiciary must be allowed to investigate the port blast in an independent and impartial manner. Gulf state Kuwait urged its citizens to leave.
“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said during a visit to Beirut.
“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are,” said Nuland, in comments echoed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The protest outside the Justice Palace was called for by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies who are demanding the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar. It was not immediately clear what triggered the gunfire, but tensions were high along a former civil war front-line between Shiite and Christian areas.
The right wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilised supporters on Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and its allies called for the protest at the Justice Palace, located in a Christian area. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.
A journalist with The Associated Press saw one man open fire with a pistol during the protest, as well as gunmen shooting in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. At least two men were seen injured and bleeding. 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.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighbourhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has further devastated the country already roiled by political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has come up against formidable opposition from Lebanon’s 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 so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation. The armed clash could derail the country’s month-old government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.
A Cabinet meeting was cancelled on 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 isn’t removed.
Devastation: On August 4, 2020, one of the world’s biggest ever non-nuclear explosions destroys much of Beirut’s port and wrecks swathes of the capital.
The blast was caused by a fire in a warehouse which had held a vast stockpile of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate for six years.
The huge explosion leaves more than 200 people dead and 6,500 injured and the city in a state of shock.
The tragedy strikes as Lebanon is mired in what the IMF later calls one of the world’s worst economic crisis in 150 years.
A plummeting currency, massive layoffs and drastic banking restrictions impoverish large parts of the population.
‘Deep changes’ needed: International aid begins to arrive and on August 6 French President Emmanuel Macron walks through the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood. His visit is praised by many Lebanese angry at their own leaders, whom they accuse of corruption and incompetence.
Macron calls for “deep changes” but the next day President Michel Aoun rejects any international probe into the disaster.
Public anger: On August 8, thousands demonstrate, angry at their leaders over the explosion. Clashes with security forces erupt.
The next day, the international community pledges around $300 million in aid but demands it be directly distributed to the population and that a transparent probe into the blast is carried out.
People ‘betrayed’: On August 10, prime minister Hassan Diab resigns amid further demonstrators.
At the end of the month, diplomat Mustapha Adib is named as Lebanon’s new premier.
But on September 26, after weeks of political deadlock, Adib bows out.
Macron says he is “ashamed” of Lebanese leaders who he claims have “betrayed” their people.
Hariri back: On October 22, three-time prime minister Saad Hariri is nominated again, promising a government of experts to stop the economic collapse.
Diab continues as caretaker PM.
On December 2, at a second aid conference, Macron urges Lebanese politicians to form a government.
Diab charged: Just over a week later the lead investigator into the explosion charges Diab and three ex-ministers with negligence.
But the probe is soon suspended, and a court removes the investigator in February.
In June, rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call for a UN investigation into the blast.
‘Immunity’: In early July, the new judge investigating the blast says he has summoned Diab and taken steps towards indicting former ministers and security officials. Parliament says it needs more evidence before it waives immunity for three former ministers who are also lawmakers, a position that the lead investigator rejects.
On July 15, Hariri steps down, unable to form a government.
Billionaire Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man — already twice premier — manages to form a new government on September 10 after a 13-month vacuum.
Deadly protest: But the new government has been shaken by demands from the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah for the judge investigating the blast, Tarek Bitar, to be removed.
He was forced to suspend his probe on Tuesday after the former ministers he had summoned on suspicion of negligence filed lawsuits against him.
One of them, a top Shiite leader from the Amal movement, threatened “political escalation”.
Amal and Hezbollah called Thursday’s rally which ended in violence, with their supporters marching on the Palace of Justice to demand the judge’s sacking.