Armed Clash Erupts in Beirut in Protest Against Blast Judge

BEIRUT (AP) -
Lebanese soldiers stand guard near the Justice Palace as supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups protest against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating last year’s deadly seaport blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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. A Beirut hospital said it received the body of one person who had died and eight who were injured, according to a local media channel.

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.

The right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and its allies 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.

A journalist with The Associated Press saw one 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. At least two men were seen injured and bleeding. 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.

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 Aug. 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 a country already roiled by political divisions and unprecedented economic and financial meltdowns.

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-old 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 Bitar isn’t removed.