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5 killed in Beirut during clashes over a blast investigation, according to reports

According to the National News Agency, at least five people were killed and many more were injured Thursday during a protest in Beirut by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge investigating last year’s massive blast in the city’s port.

The use of snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs, and rocket-propelled grenades in the exchange of fire was a dangerous escalation of tensions over the domestic investigation.

Ambulances rushed to the scene, sirens wailing, as gunfire echoed throughout the capital. Snipers fired from high-rise buildings. Bullets pierced the windows of nearby apartments.

Four projectiles were fired near a private French school, Freres of Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, according to a security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

In scenes reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war, students huddled in the central corridors with the windows open to avoid major impact.

The powerful Hezbollah group and its allies organized the protest outside the Justice Palace to demand the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar.

It was unclear what sparked the gunfire, but tensions were high along a former civil war front line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.

After Hezbollah and its allies called for a protest at the Justice Palace, which is located in a Christian neighborhood, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening. Social media videos showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets with large crosses.

3 killed in Beirut during clashes over a blast investigation, according to reports
(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

During the protest, an Associated Press journalist witnessed one man open fire with a pistol, as well as gunmen shooting in the direction of protesters from a building’s balcony.

At least two men were seen bleeding and injured. Following the exchanges of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital, the army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to look for the gunmen.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a statement urging people not to “be dragged into civil strife.”

On August 4, 2020, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse exploded, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands, and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, further devasting a country already beleaguered by political squabbles and unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.

Bitar, the second judge to preside over the complex investigation, has faced fierce opposition from Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, who accuse him of targeting politicians, the majority of whom are Hezbollah allies, for questioning.

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

So far, no Hezbollah officials have been charged in the 14-month-long investigation.

The shooting continued even after army troops arrived in the area on Thursday, with the sound of gunfire echoing above their heads.

Residents and civilians in the area were ducking to avoid the gunfire, with some yelling, “Some martyrs on the ground!” One man, who was apparently shot and down, was dragged away from the line of fire. Another body was dragged away by others.

The army then opened fire on the crowd. The streets quickly became desolate, with only the sounds of bullets to be heard. Shops were closed.

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The armed conflict has the potential to derail Lebanon’s month-old government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati even before it begins addressing the country’s unprecedented economic crisis.

Following Hezbollah’s demand for immediate government action against the judge, a Cabinet meeting was canceled on Wednesday. One Hezbollah-aligned minister stated that if Bitar is not removed, he and other Cabinet members will walk out.

AP News

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