Lebanese medics help evacuate civilians during clashes in the area of Tayouneh on Thursday. AFP
Gulf Today Report
Armed clashes erupted on Thursday in Beirut during a protest organised by Hizbollah 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.
President Michel Aoun confirmed his communication with the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Interior and Defence and the Army Commander to calm the situation.
The army deployed tanks and troops to quell the street battles that sparked memories of the 1975-1990 civil war for a city already traumatised by last year's blast disaster and Lebanon's worst-ever economic crisis.
The bloody unrest, in which the sound of automatic gunfire and grenade blasts mixed with the wail of ambulance sirens, broke out after shots were fired at a demonstration by Hizbollah and Amal movements.
The protesters were rallying against judge Tarek Bitar, tasked with investigating the massive ammonium nitrate explosion at Beirut's port that killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital on Aug.4 last year.
The judge had in recent days been in the sights of Hizbollah and Amal in particular for insisting on subpoenaing top officials in his probe.
Local media circulated video clips showing armed men shooting in the streets. The Lebanese army announced that "during protesters heading to the Adliya area, they were subjected to bursts of fire in the Tayouneh area — Badaro, and the army rushed to cordon off the area and deployed in its neighborhoods."
AFP correspondents said on Thursday's violence started with sniper fire from residential buildings targeting the Hizbollah and Amal supporters, who returned fire with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
"I can't handle these loud sounds, especially the RPGs," said one resident trapped in the combat zone in the city's southern Tayouneh area, who gave his name only as Samer.
"It's the trauma of the Beirut blast coming back all over again."
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said the "exchange started with sniper fire, with the first casualty shot in the head." He said at least six people were killed, all by gunfire, without specifying who fired the shots. The Lebanese Red Cross put the number of wounded at 30.
In the chaos, bullets smashed into houses and left craters in the walls of buildings, while many panicked civilians were trapped in their homes. Among those killed was a 24-year-old who was hit in the head by a stray bullet inside her home, a doctor at Beirut's Sahel hospital said.
Heavy fire rang out as ambulances rushed the wounded through the deserted streets, a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, where the protesters had rallied.
The army made some arrests as they raided residential buildings looking for those behind the sniper fire, AFP correspondents said.
'Right to the truth'
In the chaos, residents cowered in corridors away from windows, as some were shattered by the gunfire. A limp body lying on a main street was carried away by rescuers as gunfire rained down around them.
Pictures shared on social media showed school children ducking under desks and on the floor outside classrooms.
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, called the violence "a horrific reminder of unhealed wounds" from the civil war.
One social media user wrote that "Beirut now is similar to the Beirut of my childhood."
The man at the centre of the tensions, Bitar, is seen as a last hope for justice by many Lebanese but has been condemned as biased and corrupt by political leaders. Bitar has sparked deep divisions within the government between those who want to keep him and those who want to oust him.
The protesters on Thursday torched portraits of Bitar but also of US ambassador Dorothy Shea, charging that the judge is colluding with Washington, on the day senior American diplomat Victoria Nuland was visiting Lebanon.
The Court of Cassation on Thursday turned down a lawsuit filed by two ex-ministers demanding Bitar's replacement, a court official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The US Treasury accused Mudalal Khoury in 2015 of "an attempted procurement of ammonium nitrate in late 2013". It sanctioned his brother Imad a year later for engaging in business activities with Mudalal.
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