Six shot dead in Beirut as blast-probe tensions erupt in violence

Six people were shot dead in Beirut yesterday, in an attack on supporters of Hezbollah and its ally who were gathering to demand the removal of the judge investigating the explosion that ripped through the city’s port last year.

he shooting, which took place on a frontline of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and evoked scenes reminiscent of that conflict, marks the deadliest civil violence in Beirut since 2008.

It also highlights a deepening crisis over the probe into the catastrophic August 2020 explosion that is undermining government efforts to tackle one of the most dramatic economic meltdowns in history.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of mounting the attack.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.

The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port blast, which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.

Coming after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing Mr Bitar’s probe would split the country, the violence may create a pretext to shut down or shelve further investigation into the explosion.

LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia in the war, said the shooting was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be preserved.

During the attack, 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.

At a nearby school, teachers told infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a witness said. A lifeless body was dragged from the street by bystanders in footage broadcast by al-Jadeed TV.

The army said the gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle located in an area dividing Christian and Shia Muslim neighbourhoods.

The shooting began from the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, from where the civil war was set off, before spiralling into an exchange of fire, a military source said.

Mr Mawlawi said all the dead were from one side, meaning Shia.

Hezbollah and the 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, the army deployed heavily in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road. Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours.

The United States and France said the Lebanese judiciary needed to be allowed to investigate the port explosion in an independent and impartial manner.

“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” US under secretary of state Victoria Nuland said during a visit to Beirut.

“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are,” said Ms Nuland.

Judge Bitar has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate and one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record. All have denied wrongdoing. Hezbollah has led calls for Mr Bitar’s removal, accusing him of bias.

The stand-off over Mr Bitar’s investigation is diverting the government’s attention away from addressing a deepening economic crisis, which has plunged more than three-quarters of Lebanese into poverty.

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