Deadly shooting in Beirut as tensions erupt over blast probe
Witnesses report bullets bouncing off walls and people running for cover
Tensions over a probe into last year's massive blast in Beirut burst into the worst street violence in more than a decade on Thursday, with gun battles reviving memories of the country's 1975-90 civil war, and six Shias shot to death.
Bullets bounced off buildings and people ran for cover during bursts of gunfire that lasted several hours on what was once a frontline in the war. At one school, teachers instructed children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of attacking its supporters, who were gathering to demand the removal of the judge investigating last year's port blast.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers had opened fire and aimed at people's heads.
The shooting marks the worst civil violence in Beirut since 2008, and highlights a deepening crisis over the probe into the catastrophic August 2020 explosion that is undermining government efforts to tackle one of the most dramatic economic meltdowns in history.
The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which it blamed on Hezbollah "incitement" against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port blast, which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.
The army initially said gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi'ite Muslim neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an "altercation and exchange of fire" as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
The shooting began from the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el-Remmaneh before spiralling into an exchange of fire, a military source said.
Hezbollah, a heavily armed group backed by Iran, has led calls for Bitar to be removed from the probe into the port blast, accusing him of bias.
As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army deployed heavily in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
President Michel Aoun vowed that those responsible for Thursday's gunfire would be held accountable, saying in a televised speech it was "unacceptable that weapons are once more the means of communication among Lebanese rivals."
Lebanon's former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, tweeted that the violence that erupted in Beirut on Thursday was reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war and that it was "unacceptable on all levels."
Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours, along with several explosions that appeared to be rocket propelled-grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
Tensions over probe
Political tensions have been building over the probe into the port explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
The standoff over the investigation is diverting the newly formed government's attention away from addressing a deepening economic crisis, which has plunged more than three quarters of Lebanese into poverty.
The judge has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, which was caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Although none of its members have been targeted by the probe, Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized probe only focused on certain people.
These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shia Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts.
A court earlier on Thursday dismissed a legal complaint against Bitar, documents showed, allowing him to resume his investigation.
The violence is the worst since 2008 when followers of the Sunni-led government fought battles in Beirut with gunmen loyal to Hezbollah, who took to the streets over government decisions affecting the group.
Mikati announced on Twitter that Friday would be a day of public mourning for those killed in violence in Beirut on Thursday.