Six killed in Beirut clashes as tensions over blast probe soar
BEIRUT (AP) — Armed clashes erupted Thursday in Beirut during a protest organised by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year's blast in the city's port.
At least six people were killed and dozens were wounded in the most protracted and violent street fighting in the city in years, authorities said.
The exchanges of fire along a former front line from the 1975-90 civil war involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and were reminiscent of that conflict.
Gunfire echoed in the capital for several hours and ambulances, sirens wailing, rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings.
Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area.
It was not immediately clear what triggered Thursday's violence.
Tensions had been running high after the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement demanded the removal of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into last year's massive port explosion.
The two parties called for a protest near the Justice Palace, located along the former front line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas.
In a statement Thursday, the two groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers on rooftops.
The violence unfolded while US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials.
Her schedule was slightly thrown off by the action on the streets.
Nuland later told an airport news conference that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in apparent criticism of Hezbollah.
“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and the families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” she said.
“Today's unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
The demands for Bitar's removal and calls for protests upset many who considered it a blatant intervention in the work of the judiciary.
The right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilised supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal 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, carrying large crosses.
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