BEIRUT (AP) — Armed clashes broke out in Beirut Thursday during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year’s massive blast in the city’s port, as tensions over the domestic probe boiled over.
Gunfire echoed in the capital, and ambulances rushed to the scene, sirens wailing, amid reports of casualties.
The protest outside the Justice Palace was called for by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies who are demanding the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the gunfire, but tensions were high along a former civil war front-line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas. A journalist with The Associated Press saw one man open fire with a pistol during the protest. Another eyewitness said he saw people shooting in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building.
At least two men were seen injured and bleeding. The army deployed heavily in the area following the shooting.
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 armed clash could derail the country’s month-long government 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 Judge Tarek Bitar isn’t removed..
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