At least six people were killed and 32 wounded in Beirut on Thursday as shots were fired during a protest by Hezbollah supporters against Tarek Bitar, the judge investigating the Beirut Port blast, as tensions surrounding the case continue to rise.
As of Thursday evening, the Lebanese Army had succeeded in returning calm to the streets and the security situation had improved.
The shooting reportedly began in the Tayouneh area where it meets Ain El Remmaneh and Chiyah, a site famous for sectarian clashes during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon, as it marked the border between east and west Beirut.
Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army reported on Thursday that the shooting targeted the protesters. However, shortly after the shooting began, Hezbollah and Amal supporters could be seen firing toward buildings in the areas with automatic weapons and RPGs, raising questions whether the supporters who had claimed to be peaceful had come to the protest armed.
Eyewitnesses told MTV Lebanon news on Thursday evening that a number of young men came to Ain El Remmaneh through a small side street and began chanting Shi’ite slogans. They then started speaking with young men from the area and a fistfight broke out, leading up to one of the young men from the area bringing a Kalashnikov rifle and shooting toward the Shi’ite men, who rushed to bring weapons from their vehicles. The clash expanded throughout the neighborhood leading to the intensive clashes that lasted hours.
The eyewitnesses questioned why, if the protest was meant to be peaceful, the protesters had hundreds of weapons on hand, including RPGs. The eyewitnesses also claimed that the Hezbollah supporters deliberately entered the Ain El Remmaneh area to cause a provocation, comparing the incident to the May 7 violence that nearly sparked a civil war in 2008.
The Lebanese Army announced on Thursday evening that a firefight broke out in the area as protesters headed to the Palais de Justice, leading to casualties. The army immediately reinforced its deployment in the area and conducted searches for the shooters, arresting nine people from both sides, including one Syrian citizen. Investigations have begun with the detainees supervised by the judiciary.
“The army command made contacts with the concerned parties on both sides to contain the situation and prevent a slide toward sedition, and the command reiterated its zero tolerance with any armed, while army units continue to deploy in the area to prevent renewed clashes,” the Lebanese Army announced.
So Hezbollah tooled up; seen just here: RPG-7 w/ PG-7M, AKM(S), G3(A3), AK-74, M16A1. What I expected from their “QRF” but not sure how well that works with the LAF saying they’ll shoot anyone who’s armed…pic.twitter.com/jTK82smSMs
— Cᴀʟɪʙʀᴇ Oʙsᴄᴜʀᴀ (@CalibreObscura) October 14, 2021Video from the clashes showed gunmen hiding behind cars and garbage cans while firing at buildings and unseen targets. Unarmed civilians could be seen in the area of the clashes.
Many residents who live in the area where the clashes broke out fled due to concerns of escalating tensions and damage. Much material damage was caused in the fighting on Thursday.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has called for calm and urged the Lebanese people not to be drawn into sedition.
Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi stressed that the fact that people were shot in the head by snipers is inadmissible, adding that all government agencies are doing their part to arrest the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Mawlawi stated as well that the organizers of the protest had confirmed to the ministry that it would be peaceful and called the shooting a “crime.”
Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal movement, accused the Christian Lebanese Forces movement, headed by Samir Gaegea, a strong opponent of Hezbollah, of sniping protesters from the rooftops on Thursday, with the intent to kill, saying the attackers intended to drag Lebanon into “sedition.”
— Orient أورينت (@OrientNews) October 14, 2021The two Shi’ite movements called on their supporters for calm and on the army and security forces to restore the peace. Hezbollah and Amal called for the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators and those who instigated the violence, adding that their names are already known.
Army soldiers patrol after gunfire erupted, in Beirut, Lebanon October 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)
The Lebanese Forces denied the claims by Hezbollah, saying the shooting was because of incitement caused by Hezbollah’s leaders against Bitar, and that the claims were an attempt to divert attention from Hezbollah’s invasion into the area.
The movement pointed out that Hezbollah operatives were clearly seen in many videos entering safe neighborhoods with automatic weapons, and stated that the shooting was an attempt to use violence and intimidation to overthrow the investigation into the port explosion.
Despite the calls by Hezbollah for calm, video shared on social media showed multiple convoys of Hezbollah operatives reportedly heading to Beirut with heavy weapons, raising concerns that the violence could escalate.
Later on Thursday afternoon, Gaegea condemned the shooting, saying, “The main reason for these events is the uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens at all times and places.”
Army soldiers are deployed after gunfire erupted in Beirut, Lebanon October 14, 2021. (credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
The Lebanese Forces leader called on the Lebanese government to conduct “full and thorough investigations” to determine who was responsible for the shooting. “Civil peace is the only wealth left for us in Lebanon… but this requires all of us to cooperate to reach it,” said Gaegea.
Christian officials made multiple statements on Thursday stressing that the “free people of Lebanon” would not allow Hezbollah to force Bitar out of his position, although many of the officials have clarified that they would not use violence to do so.
Michel Moawad, a resigned Christian MP and son of assassinated Lebanese president René Moawad, told MTV Lebanon on Thursday afternoon that Hezbollah’s behavior was “extremely impudent and provocative” and warned the movement not to “even dare to think that it can frighten us with its rifles and RPGs.”
“We want to continue the battle in the street to confront those who want to destroy Lebanon’s sovereignty and entity, and destroy the judiciary, its independence and civil peace,” Moawad added.
According to the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar news, the protest that had been planned for the morning was meant to “reject the politicization of the investigations into the crime of the Beirut Port explosion and to denounce the decisions of Judge Tarek Bitar and the American intervention.”
President Michel Aoun stressed that the shooting was “a painful and unacceptable scene, regardless of the reasons and causes.” Aoun expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.
“It is not acceptable for the weapon to return as a language of communication between the Lebanese parties, because we all agreed to turn this dark page of our history,” said Aoun, stressing that the state must be the only valid authority dealing with problems and disputes.
The president stressed that the Council of Ministers must convene quickly in order to find a solution.
Aoun added, “Contacts were made with the concerned parties to address what happened, and most importantly to prevent it from happening again, knowing that we will not allow it to happen under any circumstances.”
The Council of Ministers had been set to meet on Wednesday in order to discuss the demands by Hezbollah to remove Bitar from the port blast investigation, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely, reportedly due to an inability to reach an agreement about what to do with the judge.
Aoun confirmed that security forces will protect security, stability and civil peace and warned that the government would “not allow anyone to take the country hostage to their own interests or accounts.”
The president said security forces and the judicial system would follow up on the clashes and that he would ensure the investigation reaches the truth of what happened.
“I assure the Lebanese that the clock will not turn back,” said Aoun. “We are going toward a solution, not toward a crisis. I, in cooperation with the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, will not tolerate and will not surrender to any fait accompli whose goal could be sedition, which all Lebanese reject.”
The incident comes amid heightening concerns of sectarian violence as Hezbollah and its allies obstruct Bitar’s investigation, alleging that the judge is biased and working for political purposes.
Lebanese newspapers on Thursday morning largely featured headlines warning of the collapse of the government and violence in the streets.
Supporters of Lebanese Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal and the Christian Marada movement take part in a protest against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation, near the Justice Palace in Beirut (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
A Lebanese court on Thursday dismissed the latest legal complaint brought against the lead investigator of the Beirut Port blast probe, allowing him to resume work, a judicial source and court documents showed.
Lebanese MP Ali Hassan Khalil, an ally of Hezbollah, had filed the complaint after Bitar issued an arrest warrant against him in order to question him regarding the blast.
Khalil told Al-Mayadeen TV on Tuesday that Bitar’s investigation “is unlawful and surpasses many of the protocols that must be followed.” The MP additionally claimed that the judge had met with a foreign delegation minutes after issuing the arrest warrant for Khalil, implying influence by foreign powers.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attacked Bitar on Monday, saying the judge is using the case for political goals and that he does not want to reach the truth about the explosion. Nasrallah also questioned why Bitar questioned only certain ministers and not others.
The MP warned there would be a “political escalation, and perhaps [an escalation] of another kind,” adding, “All possibilities are open,” including taking to the streets.
Khalil claimed the investigation may be part of a regional and internal plan to try to “change balances,” and that he had information indicating the investigation has a goal for a certain political group “at the behest of external parties.” On Wednesday, Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah-affiliated MP, outright accused the US of interfering in the investigation.
Sources from Hezbollah and the Marada movement told the Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV news that Bitar was preparing to accuse Hezbollah directly of responsibility for the explosion. The sources added that if Bitar is not removed, they will leave the government.
Gaegea called on the “free people of Lebanon” to prepare for a peaceful general strike if Bitar’s opponents attempt to impose their will by force. While Gaegea stressed his statement was not a threat, he added he would never accept a “certain reality” being imposed by force.
The families of the blast victims have warned against replacing or intimidating Bitar, “no matter how high the threat level,” telling officials to “keep [their] hands off the judiciary.”
Former MP Mustapha Allouch warned on Wednesday, in an interview with Voice of Lebanon, that an international investigation is needed, and that the current situation is repeating that of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, as Hezbollah feels the threads of the investigation pointing at it.
Reuters contributed to this report.