Armed clashes erupted Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s 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.
Hezbollah later said protesters from its group and the Amal movement had been attacked by gunmen from the Christian Lebanese Forces, who denied involvement and said the violence stemmed from Hezbollah "incitement" over the trial. Hezbollah said snipers had shot from the tops of buildings intending to kill people.
Lebanon's army said it had arrested nine people, including a Syrian, after the violence. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all concerned in Lebanon to immediately halt acts of violence and refrain from provocative actions or inflammatory rhetoric, a UN spokesman said. Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced on Twitter that Friday would be a day of public mourning.
President Michel Aoun vowed that those who were responsible for the violence. In a televised speech after shootings that killed six people, Aoun said it was "unacceptable that weapons are once more the means of communication among Lebanese rivals ...
We will not allow anyone to take the country hostage to their own interests."
The United States will offer an additional $67 million to support the Lebanese army, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in Beirut on Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference, Nuland said the United States was working with the Lebanese authorities, alongside the World Bank and humanitarian relief agencies, to help the country amid its deep economic crisis.
The shooting on a frontline of the 1975-90 civil war marks some of Lebanon's worst strife in years, and highlights a deepening crisis over the probe into the August 2020 blast that is undermining government efforts to tackle one of the most dramatic economic meltdowns in history.
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In scenes reminiscent of the war, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets bouncing off buildings and people running for cover. One of the dead was a woman who was struck by a bullet while in her home, a military source said, adding that all the dead so far were Shi'ites.
At a nearby school, teachers instructed infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said.
The army said in a statement the gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle located in an area dividing Christian and Shi'ite Muslim neighborhoods.
Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi'ite 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.
As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife,” the army deployed heavily in the area and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
The Lebanese Interior Minister said bullets were fired at heads as clashes developed in the Lebanese capital.
The shooting began from the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh before spiraling into an exchange of fire, the military source said.
Hezbollah's al-Manar TV said "two martyrs" and a number of wounded had been taken to a hospital in the Shi'ite southern suburbs.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours, along with several explosions that appeared to be rocket propelled-grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
Accusations of bias
Political tensions have been building over the probe into the port explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
Hezbollah, a heavily armed group backed by Iran, has led calls for investigating Judge Tarek Bitar to be removed, accusing him of bias.
The standoff over his investigation is diverting the newly formed government's attention away from addressing a deepening economic crisis.
The judge has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, which caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, backed Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized probe only focused on certain people.
These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shi'ite Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts.
A court earlier on Thursday dismissed a legal complaint against Bitar, documents showed, allowing him to resume his investigation.
On Wednesday, Samir Geagea, a Christian opponent of Hezbollah, rejected what he described as any submission to "intimidation" by the group, calling on Lebanese to be ready for peaceful strike action if the "other side" tried to impose its will by force.