Tensions over Beirut blast probe erupt

Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry and Laila BassamDeutsche Presse Agentur
People take cover after gunfire erupted during a protest in Beirut.
Camera IconPeople take cover after gunfire erupted during a protest in Beirut. Credit: AP

Tensions over a probe into last year’s massive blast in Beirut has burst into the worst street violence in more than a decade, with six Shi’ites shot dead and gun battles reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Bullets bounced off buildings and people ran for cover on Thursday during bursts of gunfire which lasted several hours on what was once a frontline in the war. At one school, teachers instructed infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of attacking its supporters, who were gathering to demand the removal of the judge investigating last year’s port blast.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers had opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.

A protest against a judge probing the Beirut port blast turned violent
Camera IconA protest against the judge investigating the 2020 Beirut port blast has turned violent. Credit: AP

The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port blast, which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.

The army initially said gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.

Coming after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing Bitar’s probe would split the country, the violence may create a pretext to shut down or shelve further investigation into the explosion.

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”.

Camera IconAt least six people have been killed and 20 wounded at a rally in Beirut organised by Hezbollah. Credit: EPA

LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia in the war, said earlier that the shooting was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be preserved.

During the attack, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets hitting buildings and residents running for cover. One of the dead was a woman who was struck by a bullet while in her home, a military source said.

The shooting began from the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, the site of a massacre that helped ignite the civil war, before spiralling into an exchange of fire, a military source said.

Interior Minister Mawlawi said all the dead were from one side, meaning Shi’ites.

Lebanese army soldiers
Camera IconLebanese army soldiers have been deployed in Beirut after protesters were attacked. Credit: AP

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement said groups had fired at protesters from rooftops, aiming at their heads in an attack they said aimed to drag Lebanon into conflict.

The army deployed heavily in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road. It later said it arrested nine people, including a Syrian.

Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Reuters the events were a setback to the government but would be overcome.

“Lebanon is going through a difficult phase not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room,” he said. “We have a lot of stages after that to complete recovery.”

August 2020 Beirut blast
Camera IconThe August 2020 Beirut blast killed more than 193, wounded 6000 and displaced 300,000 people. Credit: AP

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 violence is the worst since 2008, when followers of the Sunni-led government fought battles in Beirut with gunmen loyal to Hezbollah. Hezbollah took the streets until the government rescinded decisions affecting the group, including steps against a telecommunications network it operated.

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