Six people are dead and dozens injured after snipers opened fire on a rally by Lebanon’s powerful Hizbollah 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 Hizbollah, the Iran-backed paramilitary and political party, and its fellow Shia ally the Amal Movement. Hizbollah and Amal had taken to the streets 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, which took place close to the Justice Palace.
Shooting continued for 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, Hizbollah, 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 port probe has become a political flashpoint, with Hizbollah 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 a raft of 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.
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 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 Bitar, one of a series of legal challenges mounted by accused politicians, including some Hizbollah allies.
The clashes are taking place across an old civil war frontline in a southern area 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 am economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and state mismanagement, which has pushed more than half the nearly 7m-strong 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, called for calm on Thursday.