It was more than a year since the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut, but the investigation is not progressing. Now a dispute over the responsible judge has turned into open violence.
The dispute over the slow process of coming to terms with the Beirut explosion has fatally escalated in the Lebanese capital. During a protest there on Thursday there were shots and sometimes heavy firefights on the street. At least six people were killed, according to Interior Minister Bassam Maulawi, and 30 more injured, according to the Red Cross.
Videos showed the wounded and armed men exchanging fire in residential areas. The army declared that it would open fire on any riflemen.
People in Beirut are fleeing violence
According to an eyewitness, the violence began when strangers fired shots from a building near the Palace of Justice. A protest against investigating magistrate Tarek Bitar was planned there, who was the Investigation into the massive explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020. More than 190 people were killed and around 6,000 injured. Who exactly was responsible for the sudden violence on Thursday was initially unclear.
The mood in Beirut was very tense. On a video, crowds of people were seen running across an intersection when they were shot, seeking protection. Security forces were deployed in large numbers and blocked roads. Local residents were urged to avoid the area. Parents sometimes fled with their children in their arms or picked up their children from school in a panic.
Soldiers in Beirut: The army announced that it would open fire on any riflemen. (Source: Aziz Taher / Reuters)
Dispute over investigating judge escalates
The Shiite Amal movement, which maintains close contacts with Hezbollah, which is loyal to Iran, called for a protest in front of the Palace of Justice. She demands that investigating judge Bitar be removed from the case. On Thursday, a court of cassation rejected an application by two Shiite ex-ministers to depose Bitar – shortly afterwards, street violence broke out. Because of the application, the investigation had been on hold since Tuesday. The two ex-ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghasi Saitar have ties to Hezbollah and Amal.
A few weeks ago, ex-ministers filed a lawsuit against Bitar and accused him of a lack of neutrality during the investigation. The case had been withdrawn from his predecessor six months ago following complaints from accused ex-ministers. Bitar can continue its work for the time being, at least after Thursday’s new court order. Bitar had issued an arrest warrant for Khalil after he failed to show up for questioning.
Some were reminded of the street fighting of the civil war. Back then, from 1975 to 1990, Christian and Muslim militias in Lebanon waged a civil war against one another. Thursday’s violence also took place near an earlier demarcation line between Shiite and Christian neighborhoods. Hezbollah and Amal said snipers opened fire from rooftops in an attempt to “deliberately drag the country into combat”.