Beirut: Lebanon buried on Friday the victims of its deadliest sectarian unrest in years after gunfire gripped central Beirut for hours and revived the ghosts of the civil war.
Seven people died and dozens were wounded as a result of violence that erupted Thursday following a rally by Shiite protesters demanding the dismissal of the judge investigating last year’s devastating Beirut port blast.
The Shiite movements Amal and Hezbollah that organised the protest in front of the Justice Palace accused the Lebanese Forces (LF) Christian party of engineering the chaos by aiming sniper fire at the demonstrators.
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“This massacre was committed by the LF movement,” senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said during a Beirut funeral on Friday, accusing the party of seeking to “start a civil war”.
“We will not be dragged into sectarian strife... but at the same time we cannot allow the blood of our (martyrs) to go to waste,” he added.
In Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah held burials for two of its members as well as a woman who was shot in the head by a stray bullet while she was standing on her balcony.
Hundreds of mourners chanting in support of the Iran-backed group carried caskets wrapped in the party’s yellow flag as prayers rang out from loudspeakers.
Gun shots were fired in the air and flowers were laid on top of caskets at other funerals held in southern and eastern Lebanon for three Amal Movement supporters who died in the flareup.
The LF has strenuously denied any involvement in Thursday’s violence and said Hezbollah was “invading” off-limits neighbourhoods when the violence broke out.
A heavy army presence was visible on the streets Friday amid fears of an escalation.
On Thursday, Amal and Hezbollah militiamen filled the streets in their hundreds around Tayouneh, a notorious civil war flashpoint near the spot where the April 1975 bus attack often presented as the trigger of the conflict occurred.
As a deluge of bullets riddled residential facades, and gaggles of fighters wearing ammunition vests took over the streets and emptied their magazines haphazardly, civilians crouched in homes, terrified.
When bursts of gunfire rang out near her Adlieh home, Jumanah Zabaneh, 45, rushed out to the street, braving stray bullets, to pick up her two daughters.
She didn’t stop running until she arrived at the school, where she said scenes of “hysteria” played out.
The way back home was packed with danger.
“The gunfire was so close, we had to duck every two metres,” she said. “We hid behind cars, at the entrances to buildings, behind utility poles.”
France, the US and UN appealed for de-escalation but also insisted on allowing the port explosion investigation to continue unhindered.
Russia said Friday it was “extremely concerned” about the tensions and called for “restraint” from all sides.
Amid long-standing animosity between the LF and the Shiite groups, their feud was renewed by the work of Tarek Bitar, the judge who has led the probe into the August 4, 2020 port explosion.
Eyes on Judge Bitar
What was one of the world’s biggest ever non-nuclear explosions and Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster killed 215 people, wounded thousands and flattened swathes of the capital.
The investigation has not yet established who was responsible for the tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been poorly stored at the port for years nor what exactly started the fire that detonated the fertiliser.
Hezbollah and Amal accuse Bitar of political bias in an investigation which Lebanon’s ruling elite as a whole has hampered at every turn for more than a year.
Two Amal former ministers are among the top officials Bitar has summoned for questioning.
The discreet 47-year-old judge is seen by the blast victims’ families and many others who want the wholesale removal of the elite as the country’s best chance to achieve justice and political change.
“Judges must be free from violence. They must be free of threats. They must be free of intimidation, including that of Hezbollah,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Bitar’s entourage says the young judge is aware of the risks in a country whose history is littered with unpunished assassinations but remains determined to keep investigating.
The latest appeals rulings on the various legal challenges launched by subpoenaed ministers allow Bitar to resume an investigation which was suspended multiple times.
Next week is the earliest the probe could resume, after a day of mourning on Friday and a religious holiday through to Monday.
The government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and whose members are all sponsored by Lebanon’s hereditary political barons is expected to seek a solution that would allow the investigation to continue but appease Hezbollah.