BEIRUT (AP) – Beirut saw armed clashes Thursday during a protest against the judge who is leading the investigation into the massive explosion last year in the city’s port, as tensions rise over the internal investigation.
Shots rang out in the Lebanese capital and ambulances rushed to the area, sirens blasting, amid reports of casualties. A Beirut hospital said it received the body of a deceased and treated eight wounded, according to a local television station.
The mobilization outside the Palace of Justice was called by the powerful group Hezbollah and its allies, who are demanding the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the shooting, but tensions were high along the former front line of the civil war between Shiite and Christian areas.
The Christian formation Lebanese Forces mobilized its supporters on Wednesday night after Hezbollah and its partners announced the protest outside the Palace of Justice, located in a Christian area. Videos posted on social media showed followers of the conservative group walking the streets with large crosses.
A journalist working for The Associated Press saw a man opening fire with a pistol during the protest, as well as gunmen firing at protesters from the balcony of a building. At least two men were seen with injuries and bleeding. The army deployed in the area after the shooting and mobilized patrols to find the shooters after exchanges of fire between the Muslim and Christian areas of the city.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and asked the population “not to be drawn into civil conflicts,” according to a statement.
Hundreds of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate detonated on August 4, 2020 in a port warehouse, killing at least 215 people. The incident also injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and exacerbated the problems of the country, already shaken by political divisions and an unprecedented economic collapse.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has encountered significant opposition from the powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah and its allies, who accuse him of summoning politicians, mostly allies of the group, for questioning.
So far, none of the Hezbollah officials have been officially charged in the 14-month investigation.
The shock could derail the country’s government, which took office a month ago, before it even begins to tackle the economic crisis.
An executive meeting was canceled on Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the magistrate. A minister allied with the group said he and other members of the government would go on strike if Bitar is not dismissed.