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Beirut protests: Gunfire as tensions over port explosion probe escalate

Violence erupts after court turns down request to replace judge investigating Beirut explosion probe over accusations of 'bias'
A man carrying a girl evacuates after gunfire erupted, in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday (Reuters)
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Beirut

Residents in Lebanon's capital Beirut struggled to escape their homes and evacuate family members, as violence that broke out during a protest demanding the removal of the judge investigating last year's massive port explosion continued into Thursday afternoon. 

At least six people were killed, including a 24-year-old woman hit by a stray bullet while inside her home.

Some 30 people were injured after hundreds of protesters gathered by the Palace of Justice to demand the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar, and were reportedly scattered by sniper fire, followed by gunfire from men in black crouching behind dumpsters.

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Bitar, who has been investigating the explosion that killed more than 200 people in the capital last August, is seen by some relatives of the victims as independent but is accused by others, including the Amal and Hezbollah parties, of being biased.

The Lebanese army deployed tanks in Tayouneh-Badaro, an area near the palace, as ambulances rushed the wounded through deserted streets.

Children in nearby schools reportedly hid under desks and gathered on the floor outside their classrooms. 

Local residents told Middle East Eye that they were desperate to get their families away from the fighting, putting themselves in danger in the process.

"No one was able to extract my family, the army advised me not to risk my life, as bullets and sniper rounds were raining on the building, but I had to save them," said Bahij el-Dana.

El-Dana rushed home from work to find his wife and kids hiding in the bathroom. He said he was able to get them out, as well as his nephews, who live in the same building. "But I couldn't extract my mother and father," he said.

The scene, he said, reminded him of when his mother used to protect him and his brothers the same way during the civil war. 

Fighters from Hezbollah and Amal movements take aim during clashes in the area of Tayouneh, in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on 14 October 2021 (AFP)
Fighters from Hezbollah and Amal movements take aim during clashes in the area of Tayouneh, in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on Thursday (AFP)

Abdullah, who declined to give his last name, told MEE that the building where he lives in the Tayouneh neighbourhood had been surrounded by gunfights for nearly three hours. Abdullah's family and five others, he said, waited out the fighting in the basement.

Nearby, he said, bullets and RPG rained on a building, which is thought to be hosting gunmen. 

"After several calls of help and after contacting several media outlets, civil defence members were able to reach the surrounded families and evacuate us to a safer area," he said.

'We couldn’t wait for the shooting to stop as we were hearing the cry of help coming from the targeted buildings'

- Youssef Mallah, civil defence member

Youssef Mallah, a civil defence member, told MEE that emergency response teams had evacuated 35 people from the area.

"We had to risk our own lives under fire to extract the elderly, we couldn’t wait for the shooting to stop as we were hearing the cry of help coming from the targeted buildings," Mallah said.

Some residents, however, refused to be removed because they feared they would be shot, he said.

In a statement, the army said it had rushed to cordon off the area and deploy forces into neighbourhoods.

It later said that nine people were arrested, including a Syrian, and soldiers would remain deployed in the area to ensure violence did not flare again.

Calls for calm

Late on Thursday, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and warned against attempts to drag the country into violence.

"Lebanon is going through a difficult phase not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room," Mikati told the Reuters news agency.

"We have a lot of stages after that to complete recovery."

It was not immediately clear to what group, if any, the gunmen who initiated the violence belonged.

Hezbollah said in a statement that protesters had been attacked by gunmen from the Lebanese Forces party and that the party's gunmen were carrying out sniping from top of buildings in several neighbourhoods.

In response, a Lebanese Forces spokesperson told MEE: "Hezbollah and Amal's accusations are unacceptable and are aimed at deviating the public's opinion of what really happened on the ground."

On Monday, during a lengthy TV address, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called for Bitar to be replaced with an "honest" judge.

And on Tuesday, senior Amal movement leader Ali Hassan Khalil threatened a "political escalation" if the course of the investigation "was not rectified" after Bitar issued an arrest warrant against him for failing to show up for questioning.

Tensions later spilled into a cabinet meeting ending in a row as ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal pressed the government to support their demand to replace Bitar.

But on Thursday, the Court of Cassation decided that Bitar would stay in his position as the head of the investigation, following lawsuits filed by two former ministers summoned by the judge on suspicion of criminal negligence. 

"Bitar does not fall under the court's jurisdiction so it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal," a court official told AFP. 

The decision allows Bitar to continue the probe into the 4 August 2020 explosion.