Hezbollah and the right-wing Lebanese Forces Party pointed fingers at one another after deadly skirmishes in Beirut on Thursday.
Gunfire killed at least six people and wounded about 30 others in the Lebanese capital as tensions flared during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s port.
The Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian political party which sits in Lebanon’s parliament, claimed Hezbollah is engaging in “incitement” against the lead judge in the probe. Hezbollah, on the other hand, blamed gunmen from the Lebanese Forces for the violence.
What do we know about the clashes?
The protest outside the Justice Palace was called for by Hezbollah and its supporters as a court on Thursday dismissed the latest legal complaint brought against Judge Tarek Bitar, allowing him to resume work. Protesters had called for his removal.
The gunfire began when people heading to the protest organized by the Hezbollah and Amal groups passed through the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh in Beirut.
Two explosions were heard as people ran for cover. Ambulance sirens were heard through the city and the Lebanese army deployed patrols to seek out the perpetrators.
“While protesters were going to Justice Palace, they were fired at in the Tayounah area,” an army statement said.
Minister of Internal Affairs Bassam Malaui said attacks were carried out by “snipers” from rooftops in the Tayoune neighborhood of Beirut.
The attackers also used rocket-propelled grenades, he confirmed in a statement on Lebanese TV.
In a follow-up statement, the army said it responded by firing with live rounds, asking civilians to evacuate the affected areas.
Lebanese Army arrests nine people following violence
The Lebanese Army said in a separate statement later in the day that nine people had been arrested following the shootings, including a Syrian national.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for the arrest of those responsible for the shootings as he appealed for calm on Thursday. He urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
Mikati also said Friday will a national day of mourning for the lives lost in the violence. He told Reuters new agency that removing Beitar from the Beirut port blast probe is not up to politicians.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun called the day’s events “unacceptable” and said those held responsible for the violence will be held accountable.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the clashes were reminiscent of the country’s deadly civil war, which occurred between 1975 and 1990.
How did authorities respond?
DW Beirut correspondent Bassel Aridi reported that the authorities sent in special forces units into the areas affected to put an end to the attacks. According to Aridi, the clashes had stopped by the mid-afternoon and the Minister of Internal Affairs confirmed six deaths in the violence.
Aridi said the clashes between Lebanese armed forces and gunmen were the most fierce since the initial clashes earlier in the day. The armed forces said they believe snipers were deployed to shoot protesters and soldiers.
“I don’t know if there any casualties at this moment among the Lebanese army,” Aridi said.
“We can say things are back to normal, and at least they opened the road because before that it was completely closed by the army,” he added.
Why are people protesting against the judge?
Protesters had gathered to demand Bitar’s removal after the judge insisted on subpoenaing top officials in the blast probe.
Human rights groups and families of the blast victims see Bitar as a guarantor of justice for those affected by the deadly blast, which occurred on August 4, 2020.
But a member of the Amal group on Tuesday threatened “political escalation” if the investigation “was not rectified.”
Tensions spilled into the recently formed Lebanese cabinet as Hezbollah and Amal ministers pushed the government to replace Bitar, further deepening divisions. Meetings have now been postponed until next week, said DW’s Aridi.
“The situation is critical. These clashes are the most dangerous circumstances Lebanon has faced since 2008,” he added.
A Hezbollah supporter holds up a picture of US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, suggesting that Bitar is backed by the US
How did other countries react to the violence?
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties in Lebanon halt the violence and refrain from provocative actions, according to a UN spokesperson.
France’s foreign ministry called for de-escalation in a statement.
“France is deeply concerned over the recent hindering of the smooth running of the investigation… and the violence that has occurred in this context. France calls on all parties to bring about a de-escalation,” the foreign ministry said.
The “Lebanese judiciary must be able to work independently and impartially within the framework of this investigation, without hindrance, and with the full support of the Lebanese authorities,” the statement added.
US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who happened to be in Beirut at the time of the blast, also called for the preservation of an impartial judiciary, saying: “The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and the families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” she said, according to AP.
“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are,” she added.
Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry has called on Kuwaiti citizens to leave Lebanon following the violence.
ab,jc, wd/fb,wmr (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)