- Tensions over an investigation into last year’s massive explosion in Beirut escalate, with the shooting deaths of six Shi’ites and numerous gun battles
- Hezbollah accuses the Lebanese Forces (LF) of attacking its supporters who gathered to demand the removal of lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar
- The LF denies any involvement and said the violence was due to Hezbollah’s “incitement” against Bitar
- Bitar has sought to question numerous senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the explosion
- All have denied any wrongdoing and Hezbollah has accused Bitar of bias
Tensions over an investigation into last year’s massive explosion in Beirut escalated on Thursday, with the shooting deaths of six Shi’ites and numerous gun battles representing the worst street violence in more than a decade.
Bullets ricocheted off buildings and people ran for cover during firefights that lasted several hours. At one school, teachers told infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, according to a witness cited by Reuters.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF) — a Christian party with close ties to Saudi Arabia — of attacking its supporters, who gathered to demand the removal of the judge investigating last year’s port blast.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers had opened fire, aiming at people’s heads.
The LF, however, denied any involvement and condemned the violence. It said the violence came from Hezbollah’s “incitement” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the blast that killed 200 people and wounded thousands of others.
President Michel Aoun vowed those responsible for Thursday’s gunfire would be held to account. He said in a televised speech it was “unacceptable that weapons are once more the means of communication among Lebanese rivals.”
According to a military source, the shooting began in the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, the site of a massacre that helped spark Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990.
The army was deployed heavily in the area around Teyouneh — a traffic circle that divides the Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods — and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road. It later added that it had arrested nine people, including a Syrian.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the violence was a setback to the government, but that it would be overcome.
“Lebanon is going through a difficult phase, not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room,” he said.
“We have a lot of stages after that to complete recovery.”
Judge Bitar has sought to question numerous senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the explosion. The blast is thought to have been caused by a huge quantity poorly-stored of ammonium nitrate, and is one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions on record.
All have denied any wrongdoing, and Hezbollah has led calls for Bitar’s removal, accusing him of bias.
The standoff over the investigation has also diverted the newly formed government’s attention away from Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis, which has plunged more than three quarters of people into poverty.