BEIRUT – Armed clashes broke out on Thursday during a protest in Beirut by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the chief judge investigating the massive explosion in the city’s port last year. The Lebanese interior minister said five people were killed and 16 injured.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said many of the victims were shot from buildings by snipers.
“This is a very dangerous sign,” Mawlawi told reporters. “Nobody can take it.”
The exchange of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades was a serious escalation in tensions over the domestic investigation and the worst armed clashes since 2008 when Shiite Hezbollah briefly overran parts of Beirut.
It was not immediately clear how the clashes began on Thursday. The Hezbollah group and its Shiite allies in the Amal militia called for a protest near the Palace of Justice along a former civil war front between Muslim-Shiite and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters had been shot at by snipers stationed over rooftops in the Tayouneh area.
Gunshots echoed in the capital for several hours, and ambulances rushed to retrieve the injured, sirens wailing. Snipers shot out of buildings. Bullets pierced apartment windows in the area. Four projectiles fell near a French private school, Freres of Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, said a security officer who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the press.
Students huddled in the central corridors with the windows open to avoid major impact, in scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 Civil War. Smoke covered the neighborhood, where gunfire was relentlessly heavy. A car caught fire, while a fire was reported on a lower floor, with residents trapped calling for help.
The violence unfolded when US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town and meeting with Lebanese officials. Their schedule was easily messed up with the hustle and bustle of the streets.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm and urged people “not to be drawn into civil unrest”.
The probe focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a port warehouse that was closed on Aug.
It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated the country already ravaged by political divisions and an unprecedented economic and financial collapse.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the intricate investigation, has encountered stiff opposition from the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group and its allies, who accuse him of selecting politicians for questioning, most of whom are Hezbollah allies.
While none of its officials have been charged in the 14-month-old investigation, Hezbollah – a heavily armed group supported by Iran – has called for the judge’s removal.
These demands and calls for protest annoy many.
The right-wing Christian-Lebanese armed forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for protests outside the Palace of Justice in a Christian neighborhood. Videos shared on social media showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese armed forces marching in the streets with large crosses.
The armed clash could derail the country’s month-old government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati before it even begins tackling Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.
A cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah called for urgent government action against the judge. A minister allied with Hezbollah said he and other cabinet members would go on strike if Bitar is not removed.