Hundreds of supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its main Shiite ally Amal were marching towards the Lebanese capital’s Palace of Justice when, according to the country’s interior, protesters and journalists were fired upon by snipers on rooftops to force them to take cover. Bullets were fired. Statement from the minister, the army and the local broadcaster.
Protesters were demanding the removal of a popular judge who was investigating a massive explosion at the port of Beirut last August that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.
As armed clashes broke out on Thursday, social media footage showed masked gunmen, apparently linked to protesters, firing RPGs and AK-47s from streets and through garbage dumps and road barriers. Were.
The Lebanese Red Cross said six people were killed and more than 30 were injured in the violence. Interior Minister Bassem Mawlawi told reporters that snipers and gunmen “shot people in the head,” while four B7 rockets were fired into the air.
Smoke was seen rising from inside the buildings on which shots were fired. The center of the clashes, the Tayouneh neighbourhood, is close to the birthplace of Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war, and has increased the specter of further turmoil in the beleaguered country.
The gun and rocket fire appeared to have stopped about four hours after the start of the fighting. Some traffic returned to the capital’s streets as Lebanese Civil Defense and Red Cross teams evacuated Shellshock residents from Tayouneh.
In a joint statement, Hezbollah and Amal accused the right-wing Christian party The Lebanese Forces of being behind the sniper attacks. The Lebanese Army Party rejected those charges and blamed the fighting on “broad arms” – a nod to Hezbollah’s weapons. The Christian Party has been a decade-long staple of Lebanon’s sectarian elite, but has sought to re-establish itself as an anti-establishment party, a move that has been rejected by Lebanon’s main opposition groups. .
There was wholesale condemnation of Thursday’s violence. Lebanese activists tweeted about the feeling of “déj vu” from the country’s civil war, while President Michel Aoun and newly-appointed Prime Minister Najib Mikati also said the fighting was a reminder of that conflict. US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who visited Beirut on Thursday, called the scenes “unacceptable”. The European Union has also condemned the clashes.
A high-ranking Hezbollah official told CNN: “It is clear that the people who fired at the protesters were organized armed groups that had been planning this attack since yesterday.” “We will not retaliate. They want to drag us into civil strife and we do not want to sow civil strife.”
Jumana Zabaneh, a Beirut resident who went to her daughters’ school near the clashes on Thursday, told CNN there was “panic all around.”
“The teachers do their best to calm the kids down, try to tell them not to panic and try to help them understand what’s going on, but don’t understand anything about it, ” He said. “There was no way to keep him calm because the men and women around him were panicking.”
“Normally a 10-minute walk back home took 30 minutes because bullets were flying all around me and my kids. Every minute or two we would stop in a building to hide,” Zabaneh said.
He said the chaos brought back memories of both the civil war and last year’s devastating eruption.
“I’m not surprised by what happened,” she said. “Sadly, there is nothing new here. We are a generation of war. I was born in 1976, so war was my childhood. That’s the sadness of it. But it shouldn’t be my children’s childhood either.”
Violence amid political scandal
Thursday began with protests against Judge Tarek Bitter, who is leading the investigation into the Beirut blasts, and demanded the prosecution of high-level officials.
Hezbollah has been a staunch opponent of Bitter. This week, the judge issued an arrest warrant against a top Amal official and former finance minister, MLA Ali Hassan Khaleel.
Betar has also issued an arrest warrant against former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s aide and former Home Minister MP Nauhad Machnouk.
Since his appointment in February, Bitar, who also heads Beirut’s criminal court, has called on top political and security officials to be interrogated in the Beirut blasts investigation. He is the second judicial investigator to lead the investigation. The first judge to handle the investigation was sacked after two former ministers accused in the investigation successfully filed a motion for their removal.
Betar’s investigation of high-profile politicians including former ministers, the head of the country’s main intelligence apparatus and former prime minister Hassan Diab has presented the biggest legal challenge to Lebanon’s ruling elite in decades. Diab has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.
Many of the ruling elite, including politicians, are exempt from scrutiny by virtue of the Lebanese constitution, but there is growing demand to remove that immunity for the purposes of this investigation. A legal battle is on to maintain that immunity and avoid the possibility of prosecution.
Meanwhile, Bitter has emerged as one of the country’s most popular civil servants, reputed for the rule of law in a confessional power-sharing system that has repeatedly saved powerful politicians and businessmen from accountability. Several legal petitions by the authorities to prosecute the dismissal of Betar have been unsuccessful.
During a televised speech on Monday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah rebuked the judge, accusing him of “politicising”. Nasrallah did not provide any evidence to support his claim.
For two years, Lebanon has been in the grip of an economic depression that has led to skyrocketing inflation, poverty rates and unemployment, as well as a rapid decline in the country’s infrastructure.