© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the location of the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020, Lebanon, October 13, 2021. The Arabic reads: “The right to justice”. REUTERS / Mohamed Azakir
By Maha El Dahan, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Tensions over an investigation into last year’s massive explosion in Beirut erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade on Thursday.
Bullets ricocheted off buildings and people sought cover in what was once a front line in the war during the gunfire, which lasted several hours. At one school, teachers instructed toddlers to lie face down on the floor with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said.
Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shiite Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Armed Forces (LF), a Christian party with close ties to Saudi Arabia, of attacking their supporters who had gathered to seek dismissal of the judge calling for an investigation into the port explosion last year.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.
The LF denied involvement and condemned the violence it attributed to Hezbollah “inciting” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port explosion that killed 200 people, injured thousands and devastated parts of Beirut.
The army initially said gunfire was aimed at protesters as they passed the Teyouneh roundabout, which separates Christian and Shiite Muslim quarters. It was later said that there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
Following repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing the Bitar investigation would divide the country, the violence could provide an excuse to halt the explosion or postpone further investigations.
President Michel Aoun promised that those responsible for Thursday’s shots would be held accountable and said in a televised address that it was “unacceptable that guns are once again the means of communication between Lebanese rivals”.
LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia during the war, previously said the shots were the result of uncontrolled weapons in society and said civil peace must be preserved.
During the attack, local TV stations broadcast footage of bullets hitting buildings and residents taking cover. One of the dead was a woman who was hit by a bullet in her home, a military source said.
The shooting began in the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, the site of a massacre that sparked civil war before an exchange of fire broke out, a military source said.
Interior Minister Mawlawi said that all the dead were from one side, that is, Shiites.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement said groups shot protesters from rooftops and aimed at their heads in one attack to drag Lebanon into conflict.
The army was very active in the Teyouneh area and said they would open fire on any armed man on the street. It was later reported that nine people had been arrested, including a Syrian.
Gunshots could be heard for hours.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Reuters that the events represented a blow to the government but would be overcome.
“Lebanon is going through a difficult phase and not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room,” he said. “After that we have many phases to complete recovery.”
USA, FRANCE URGENT IMPARTIAL PROBING
The United States and France said the Lebanese judiciary must be allowed to investigate the port explosion independently and impartially. The Gulf state of Kuwait asked its citizens to leave the country.
“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of the victims of the port explosion deserve no less,” said US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on a visit to Beirut.
“Today’s unacceptable violence shows what is at stake,” said Nuland in a comment from the French Foreign Ministry.
Judge Bitar has tried to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, who are suspected of the negligence that led to the port explosion caused by a huge amount of ammonium nitrate and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Hezbollah has cited demands for Bitar’s dismissal, accusing him of bias.
On Wednesday, Geagea denied submission to Hezbollah “intimidation” over Bitar and urged the Lebanese to be ready to strike peacefully if the “other side” tried to enforce its will by force.
The stalemate regarding the Bitar investigation draws the newly formed government’s attention away from coping with a worsening economic crisis https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanons-mikati-faces-tricky-path-safe- economic-ground- 2021-09-13, which more than three quarters of the Lebanese https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/why-is-lebanon-such-mess-2021-10-14 in poverty fell.
Mikati told Reuters that any minister threatening to resign over the investigation into the port explosion “should be responsible for their decision,” adding that it is not the role of politicians to meddle in the judiciary.
Although none of its members was targeted by the investigation, Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized investigation that only focused on specific individuals.
These include some of their closest allies, including high-ranking figures from the Shiite Amal movement, who have held ministerial posts, including former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who told al-Mayadeen TV this week that the investigation threatened Lebanon “in the direction of civil strife” .
A court previously dismissed a lawsuit against Bitar, according to documents allowing him to resume his investigation.
The violence is worst since 2008, when supporters of the Sunni government in Beirut fought with armed men loyal to Hezbollah. Hezbollah took to the streets until the government overturned decisions affecting the group, including taking action against a telecommunications network it operated.