BEIRUT — Armed clashes erupted Thursday during a protest in Beirut by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s massive blast in the city’s port. Five people were killed and 16 were injured, Lebanon’s interior minister said.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said many of the casualties were shot by snipers from buildings.
“This is a very dangerous sign,” Mawlawi told reporters. “No one can take this.”
The exchanges of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades were a serious escalation of tension over the domestic probe, and the worst armed clashes since 2008, when the Shiite Hezbollah briefly overran parts of Beirut.
It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s clashes began. The Hezbollah group and its Shiite allies from the Amal Militia had called for a protest near the Justice Palace, along a former civil war front-line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed over rooftops in the Tayouneh area.
Gunfire echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens wailing, rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area. Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Freres of Furn el Chebbak, causing panic, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The students huddled in the central corridors with the windows open to avoid major impact, in scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war. Smoke covered the neighborhood where intense gunfire was relentless. A car caught fire, while a blaze was reported in a lower floor where residents were stuck and called for help.
The violence unfolded while U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly thrown off by the action on the streets.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
The probe centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse that detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods.
It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has further devastated the country already roiled by political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial meltdown.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has come up against formidable opposition from Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.
Though none of its officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation, Hezbollah — a heavily armed group backed by Iran — has demanded the judge’s removal.
Those demands and calls for protest upset many.
The right wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for the protest at the Justice Palace, located in a Christian area. Videos circulating on social media showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.
The armed clash could derail the country’s month-old government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.
A Cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. One Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other Cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar isn’t removed.