Dispute over investigation into explosion in Beirut escalates

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 heavy firefights in the open 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. After about four hours the situation seemed to have calmed down somewhat.

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According to an eyewitness, the violence began when strangers fired shots from a building near the Palace of Justice. A protest was planned there against investigating magistrate Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into the huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020. More than 190 people were killed and around 6,000 injured. A video showed how crowds of people suddenly seek cover when they are shot next to a high-rise building.

Frightened residents fled during the fighting, some with children in their arms, while others panicked their children from school. Some children were kept in classrooms for their protection. Soldiers brought the elderly to safety.

UN special coordinator Joanna Wronecka called on Twitter for “extreme restraint” and a restoration of calm. The United Nations in New York stressed the need for an independent investigation into the explosion last year.

It was initially unclear who was responsible for the violence. The Shiite Amal movement and its affiliated, Iran-loyal Hezbollah spoke of snipers on rooftops who opened fire on their supporters during the protest. They accused the Christian Forces Libanaises (FL) of sending armed militias on the Shiite demonstrators. The militarist FL party is the successor to a militia of the same name that was charged with several political murders decades ago.

Beirutians are reminded of street fighting during the civil war

Amal and Hezbollah are demanding that Judge Bitar be removed from the case. A corresponding request by two ex-ministers with ties to Hezbollah and Amal was rejected by a court of cassation on Thursday. Other forces accuse Hezbollah of wanting to hinder the investigation into the explosion. FL chief Samir Geagea called on the government not to be intimidated by Hezbollah in the investigation into the explosion.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati called on the Lebanese to calm down and to “let themselves be drawn into a civil war for no reason”. In view of the street fighting, some felt reminded of such a thing anyway. In Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, Christian and Muslim militias, among others, waged a civil war against one another. Thursday’s violence also took place near an earlier demarcation line between Shiite and Christian neighborhoods.

In the afternoon the army gradually restored calm. Tanks and soldiers were in position on the streets. Bullet holes were seen in several buildings. Shortly after the outbreak of violence, the army warned not to open fire on any riflemen.

A few weeks ago, ex-ministers complained against Bitar and accused him of lacking neutrality in his 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 issued an arrest warrant for ex-minister Khalil after he failed to appear for questioning. (dpa)

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