BEIRUT — Armed clashes erupted Thursday during a protest in Beirut by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s massive blast in the city’s port.
At least six people were killed and dozens were wounded in the most protracted and violent street fighting in the city in years, authorities said.
The tensions over the port blast add to Lebanon’s enormous multiple troubles, including an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, an energy crisis leading to extended electricity blackouts, hyperinflation and soaring poverty.
The exchanges of fire along a former front line from the 1975-90 civil war involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and were reminiscent of that conflict. Gunfire echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens wailing, rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area.
It was not immediately clear what triggered Thursday’s violence.
Tensions had been running high after the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement demanded the removal of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. The two parties called for a protest near the Justice Palace, located along the former front line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed over rooftops.
The violence unfolded while U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly thrown off by the action on the streets.
Nuland later told an airport news conference that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in apparent criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and the families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
The demands for Bitar’s removal and calls for protest upset many who considered it blatant intervention in the work of the judiciary.
The right wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal 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.
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.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
The court probe centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse that detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods. 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 is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation — his predecessor was removed following legal challenges. Now Bitar has come up against formidable opposition from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.
Though none of its officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation, Hezbollah — a heavily armed group backed by Iran — has demanded the judge’s removal.
The armed clash could derail Mikati’s month-old government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s economic meltdown.
A Cabinet meeting was canceled 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.