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5 killed in Beirut during protest over judge in blast probe

5 killed in Beirut during protest over judge in blast probe

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s interior minister says five people have been killed in armed clashes in Beirut that erupted Thursday during protests against the lead investigator into last year’s massive blast at the city’s port.

Bassam Mawlawi told reporters Thursday that many of those injured were shot by snipers from buildings. He called the events, “a very dangerous sign.”

The protest was organized by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and its ally, the Shiite Amal Movement. They both want the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, removed from the port blast investigation.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Armed clashes erupted during a protest in Beirut organized by the militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s massive blast in the city’s port, killing at least three people and injuring dozens.

The exchanges of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades were a dangerous escalation of tensions 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, but tensions had been running high after the Hezbollah group and its Shiite allies from the Amal Militia 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.

The demands for Bitar’s removal 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.

A journalist with The Associated Press saw a man open fire with a pistol during the protest, as well as gunmen shooting in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building. Several men fell immediately from the gunfire and bled on the tarmac. The army deployed heavily and sent patrols to the area to search for the gunmen, following the exchanges of gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital.

A staffer at the emergency room at al-Sahel hospital said they received three bodies and 15 injured. One of the killed, a woman, received a bullet to her head. Two of the 15 injured were in critical condition.

In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”

Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse 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.

None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.

The shooting continued even after army troops deployed to the area Thursday, with the sound of exchange of fire ringing over their heads. Residents and civilians in the area were ducking to avoid the shooting, some screaming: “Some martyrs on the ground!” People pulled one man who was apparently shot and down, away from the line of fire. Others pulled another body away.

In some videos circulating online, some men were chatting: “Shiite Shiite” on the streets, as residents were running from the gunfire.

Haneen Chemaly, a resident of Furn el-Chebbak and mother of a 6-month old girl, said she first moved to the corridor before running to the shelter because the sound of gunfire was terrifying from her 10th-floor apartment. “I did it for my child. I don’t know what is happening. I can just hear the sound of gunfire.”

She said there was no electricity for her to follow on TV what was going on, so knew nothing of the situation on the ground and opted for safety. After spending some time in the shelter, she moved to the first floor to stay with her neighbors away from the fire, where she felt it was safer.

“I know there was so much mobilization from the night before, all predicting that a war would erupt,” Chemaly, who heads a local NGOs that provides social services. Civil war erupting “is the last card they have to use. They have drove us into bankruptcy, devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war.”

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.

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Associated Press journalist Hassan Ammar in Beirut contributed reporting.

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