Six people are dead and dozens injured after snipers opened fire on a rally by Lebanon's powerful Hizbullah group and others in central Beirut, unleashing the worst violence the capital has seen for years as tensions rise over an investigation into the 2020 port blast.
Unknown gunmen attacked supporters of Hizbullah, the Iran-backed paramilitary and political party, and its fellow Shia ally the Amal Movement. Hizbullah and Amal had taken to the streets, with some supporters openly brandishing weapons in a provocative show of force, to protest against what they see as the politicisation of a judicial investigation into the Beirut port blast that devastated the capital and left more than 200 dead.
Automatic fire and rocket-propelled grenades were heard in neighbourhoods near the gunfight. Shooting continued for more than three hours despite heavy deployment of soldiers, and the Lebanese Red Cross, which provides emergency services, said the death toll had risen to six on Thursday afternoon. Live footage broadcast on local television showed residents in the area fleeing their homes.
In a joint statement, Hizbullah, the biggest armed force after the army, and Amal said that snipers had shot at the heads of the demonstrators, blaming “armed and organised groups aiming to drag the country into sedition”.
The two groups later accused the Lebanese Forces, a far-right Christian party of being behind the shootings, according to pro-Hizbullah television channels. The LF denied involvement, but accused Hizbullah of “incitement” against the judge leading the port investigation.
The inquiry has become a political flashpoint, with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah this week calling for the presiding judge's removal, accusing him of political bias.
Tarek Bitar, the second judge to lead the investigation, has attempted to charge and summon ex-ministers and security officials from across the political spectrum, in an effort to hold powerful individuals to account for the explosion of badly stored chemicals.
Civil war frontline
A trail of leaked documents has revealed that many officials knew about the danger posed by the stash of ammonium nitrate but failed to take action.
Families of victims have repeatedly demonstrated in support of Judge Bitar, and the EU delegation in Lebanon this week said that "the investigation should be allowed to proceed without any interference in legal proceedings". Earlier on Thursday, a court dismissed an appeal to remove Judge Bitar, one of a series of legal challenges mounted by accused politicians, including some Hizbullah allies.
The clashes are taking place across an old civil war frontline in a southern part of Beirut, an area home to all three of the country’s main sects – Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Christians. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, but old sectarian and political rivalries remain.
Lebanon is suffering its most severe social turbulence since the war ended. It is two years into an economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and state mismanagement, which has pushed more than half the nearly seven million population into poverty. The collapse was exacerbated by more than a year without a fully functioning government, as political forces fought among each other for control of ministries, which are divided along sectarian lines.
Billionaire Najib Mikati, who was appointed prime minister last month, on Thursday called for calm. The violence overshadowed a visit by the US under secretary of state for political affairs, who announced a $67 million (€58 million) support package for the Lebanese Armed Forces. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021