BEIRUT -Gunfire in Beirut killed at least five Lebanese Shi’ites in what authorities said was an attack on protesters who were going to take part in a demonstration called by Hezbollah to demand the removal of the judge investigating last year’s port explosion.
The shooting on a frontline of the 1975-90 civil war marks some of Lebanon’s worst strife in years, and highlights a deepening crisis over the probe into the August 2020 blast that is undermining government efforts to tackle one of the most dramatic economic meltdowns in history.
In scenes reminiscent of the war, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets bouncing off buildings and people running for cover. One of the dead was a woman who was struck by a bullet while in her home, a military source said, adding that all the dead so far were Shi’ites.
At a nearby school, teachers instructed infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said.
The army said in a statement the gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle located in an area dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods.
Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, said groups had fired at protesters from rooftops, aiming at their heads in an attack they said aimed to drag Lebanon into conflict.
As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army deployed heavily in the area and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
The shooting began from the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh before spiralling into an exchange of fire, the military source said.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said “two martyrs” and a number of wounded had been taken to a hospital in the Shi’ite southern suburbs.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours, along with several explosions that appeared to be rocket propelled-grenades fired into the air, Reuters witnesses said.
ACCUSATIONS OF BIAS
Political tensions have been building over the probe into the port explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.
Hezbollah, a heavily armed group backed by Iran, has led calls for investigating Judge Tarek Bitar to be removed, accusing him of bias.
The standoff over his investigation is diverting the newly formed government’s attention away from addressing a deepening economic crisis.
The judge has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, which caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, backed Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicised probe only focused on certain people.
These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shi’ite Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts.
A court earlier on Thursday dismissed a legal complaint against Bitar, documents showed, allowing him to resume his investigation.
On Wednesday, Samir Geagea, a Christian opponent of Hezbollah, rejected what he described as any submission to “intimidation” by the group, calling on Lebanese to be ready for peaceful strike action if the “other side” tried to impose its will by force.