Source: Gunfights Rock Beirut Following Hezbollah Protest Against Blast Probe
Discovered on: 2021-10-14 15:51:00
BEIRUT—Tensions over a judicial probe into last year’s devastating Beirut port explosion spiraled into street clashes and gunbattles in the Lebanese capital following a demonstration by the dominant Hezbollah faction aimed at resisting a senior judge’s efforts to hold officials accountable.
The Lebanese army, which sent forces out onto the streets to suppress the fighting, said unidentified gunmen fired at protesters who were heading to the demonstration.
“Army units are deployed and will fire on anyone who is armed and present on the streets and at anyone that shoots from anywhere else,” the military said in a statement shared on Twitter. It also called on civilians to clear the streets.
Hezbollah also said in a statement that snipers fired at its supporters. People in the pro-Hezbollah crowd were seen returning fire at the gunmen.
“The gunfire was aimed at heads,” Hezbollah said.
Six people were killed in the clashes and thirty others were wounded, according to a spokesperson for the Lebanese Red Cross.
Hezbollah accused a right-wing Christian group called the Lebanese Forces of firing on its supporters and called on security forces to arrest the perpetrators. A long-time rival of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces have demanded that the Islamist faction be disarmed.
“Hezbollah is making people choose between civil war and the dismissal of the judge, Tarek Bitar,” said Charles Jabbour, a Lebanese Forces media official. He denied accusations that his group was involved in the fighting. “What happened was that the locals from the neighborhood fired back after Hezbollah’s supporters attacked the area.”
Fighting began in the late hours of Thursday morning and continued almost unabated until the early afternoon following the intervention of the army. After the clashes simmered down, civilians were evacuated from their homes, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Live footage from the area of the clashes depicted women and children weeping as they fled their home, parents cried for their children having to witness what they themselves experienced more than 20 years ago.
The sounds of gunfire and explosions through the city were reminiscent of the country’s 15-year civil war that divided Beirut along sectarian lines into regions ruled by warlords. The war ended in 1990, but Thursday’s battles were fought along the fault lines that divided the city 21 years ago.
Hezbollah accuses the judge in charge of the Beirut blast probe, Tarek Bitar, of politicizing the investigation and focusing on the group’s allies in the government. “This is political targeting and has nothing to do with justice and the truth,” Hezbollah leader
said during a televised speech earlier this week.
The explosion in Beirut’s port last year killed more than 200 people. The blast also injured around 7,000 people and devastated some of the Lebanese capital’s liveliest residential and commercial areas. Many of the afflicted neighborhoods are yet to recover.
The blast hastened the crash of Lebanon’s economy. Almost a year after the blast, concurrent economic and fiscal crises have rendered Lebanon’s economy one of the worst in the world.
The World Bank says Lebanon is mired in possibly one of the world’s three worst economic crises of the past 150 years. The economic collapse, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, pushed millions of people into poverty.
Mr. Bitar is seen by many in Lebanon and by the families of the victims of the blast as their only chance for accountability.
“We have faith in and we trust this judge. We support him and refuse everything that was said about him in the speeches and the media of the political parties,” said Paul Naggear, whose 3-year-old daughter was killed in the explosion.
“Seeing such a reaction from the ruling mafia is an argument in favor of the competence of the judge,” he said.
The investigation into the port blast is one of the few times Lebanon’s political elite have been subjected to scrutiny for their actions. Many in the country accuse them of incompetence, corruption and neglect, saying their poor governance collapsed the economy and contributed to the mismanagement at the port that led to last year’s blast.
“The outcomes of Bitar’s investigation will have implications not just for justice in the case of the Beirut blast, but for the kind of state Lebanon will become: one where the powerful can literally get away with murder, or one where everyone is subjected to the same rule of law,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon Researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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