6 dead as gunbattles erupt during Beirut protest

By Zeina Karam and Sarah el Deeb | Associated Press

BEIRUT — Heavy gunfire broke out Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Hezbollah group against the judge leading the probe into last year’s blast in the city’s port. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded in the most violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital in years.

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 for hours, and ambulances rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.

The chaos raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already embroiled in multiple crises, including one of the world’s worst economic crises of the past 150 years.

It was not clear who started the shooting, which began shortly after the start of the protest organized by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. Hezbollah and its allies accuse the judge of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.

Tensions over the port blast have contributed to Lebanon’s many troubles, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, soaring poverty and an energy crisis leading to extended electricity blackouts.

Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by charging and summoning some officials and not others. They want him removed.

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None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.

The probe centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were improperly stored at a port warehouse that detonated on Aug. 4, 2020. The blast killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated the country already beset with political divisions and financial woes.

Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation. His predecessor was removed following legal challenges.

On Thursday, shortly before the planned protest, an appeals court turned down a request to remove Bitar from his post filed by two lawmakers who are defendants in the case, both of them allies of Hezbollah.

The calls for the judge’s removal upset many who considered it blatant interference 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 on the former front line separating predominantly Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut. Videos circulating on social media Wednesday night showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.

In a statement Thursday, the two Shiite groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed over rooftops. Among the dead — all Shiites — were two Hezbollah members.

The army also said …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

      

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