Reuters file photo: A general view of the site of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, Lebanon October 1, 2021. It is written in Arabic: ‘Right to justice’. Reuters / Mohammad Azakir
Written by Maha El Dahan, Tom Perry and Laila Basam
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Six Shiites have been shot dead in Beirut in an attack on supporters of Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies who had gathered to demand the removal of a judge investigating last year’s devastating port bombing.
Lebanon’s first civil war in 1975-90 and reminiscent of the conflict are the deadliest in Beirut since 200.
It also highlights a deep crisis over the investigation into the August 2020 bombings that is undermining the government’s efforts to deal with one of the most dramatic recessions in its history.
Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally the Shiite Amal Movement, Lebanese Forces (LF), have blamed Christian groups with close ties to Saudi Arabia for the attack.
Home Minister Basham Maulvi said snipers fired and targeted people’s heads.
The LF has denied any involvement and condemned the violence, blaming Hezbollah’s “provocation” against Tarek Bitar, the chief investigating judge in the port blast, which killed 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of Beirut.
It comes after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing the Bita investigation could split the country, create an excuse to stop the violence or stop further investigations into the blast.
President Michel Aoun promised that those responsible for Thursday’s gunfight would be held accountable, saying in a televised speech that “it is unacceptable that weapons are again a means of communication between Lebanon’s rivals.”
Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said the violence was reminiscent of civil war and “unacceptable at all levels.”
LF leader Samir Gia, whose group had strong militias in the war, had earlier said the shots were the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be maintained.
During the attack, footage fired by local television stations spilled out of the building and people ran to cover it. A military source said one of the dead was a woman who was hit by a bullet while at home.
According to a Reuters eyewitness, teachers at a nearby school instructed the children to lie on the ground with their hands on their heads. In the footage broadcast by Al-Jadeed TV, eyewitnesses dragged a lifeless body off the road.
The army said in a statement that the protesters were shot as they passed through the Tuneh traffic circle in an area divided between Christian and Shia Muslim neighborhoods.
A military source said the shootings began in the Christian neighborhood of Ain El-Remaneh, where the civil war began, before spreading in exchange for fire.
Home Minister Maulvi said the dead were all from one side, meaning Shia.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement say they have been attacked in order to drag Lebanon into conflict.
When Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army deployed heavily in the vicinity of Tunis and said they would fire on any armed men on the streets.
The sound of gunfire could be heard for hours.
United States, France Yours Imperial Prob
The United States and France have said the Lebanese judiciary should be allowed to investigate the port explosion independently and impartially. The Gulf state of Kuwait has called on its citizens to leave.
During a visit to Beirut, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said, “The Lebanese people deserve less, and the families of the victims of the port explosion deserve less.”
“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the risks are,” Nuland said in a resounding remark from the French Foreign Ministry.
Judge Bitar asked a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah ally, to question the negligence that led to the port explosion, the huge amount of ammonium nitrate and the largest non-nuclear explosion on record.
Everyone has denied injustice.
Hezbollah has called for the removal of Bitar, citing bias.
On Wednesday, Giagia rejected any submissions he made to Bitar as “intimidating” Hezbollah, urging Lebanese to be prepared for a peaceful strike if “other parties” try to force his will.
The stalemate over Bitter’s investigation is diverting the attention of the newly formed government from tackling a deeper economic crisis that has plunged more than three-quarters of Lebanon into poverty.
Although the investigation did not target any of its members, Hezbollah accused Bitar of pursuing a politically motivated investigation.
It includes some of his closest allies, including senior figures from the Shia Amal movement who held ministerial posts, including former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who told Al-Mayadeen TV this week that the path to the investigation threatened to push Lebanon into “civil war.”
Earlier, a court dismissed a legal complaint against Bitter, showing documents, allowing him to resume his investigation.
The violence is the worst since 2008, when supporters of the Sunni-led government in Beirut fought with Hezbollah loyalists. Hezbollah has taken to the streets until the government reverses decisions that affect the group, including action against a telecommunications network it operates.