Beirut witnessed its worst violence in over a decade as gunfire erupted ahead a controversial protest in central Beirut.
Dozens of supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and their Shia allies Amal were marching towards the country’s Justice Palace when unknown gunmen and snipers fired from rooftops causing demonstrators to take cover and disperse.
The Iran-backed militant and political group Hezbollah had called Thursday’s protest to demand the removal of Tarek Bitar, a popular judge heading a probe into last year’s port blast which killed over 200 people. The judge has issued arrest warrants for some top officials, including a high-ranking official from the Amal movement, which is allied with Hezbollah.
Beirut’s residents, war-seasoned and with a sixth sense for impending violence, were already preparing for the worst. No sooner had the sniper fire begun than masked men dressed in black, apparently affiliated with the protesters, started to shoot rifles and RPGs, according to social media videos.
At least five people have been killed — with some having been shot in the head — and over 30 people injured. Smoke billowed from buildings that were being fired upon. Lebanon’s residents glued to their TV sets watched as one person tumbled over and laid still on the ground, after having been shot.
Children were taking cover in classrooms at nearby schools, according to social media posts, and Civil Defense units were reportedly evacuating residents holed up in their apartments. Local broadcasters also showed video of people in underground garages, which were used as bomb shelters during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war which ended in 1990.
Lebanon’s government, the military and the protest’s organizers — Hezbollah and Amal — have called for calm. But for hours gun and rocket fire continue to ring out in the area, which is near the birthplace of civil war — a fact that was not lost on Lebanese people rattled by years of a devastating economic crisis.
Thursday’s violence comes as some in Lebanon’s ruling elite have redoubled their efforts to remove Judge Bitar from his post. Hezbollah emerged as the judge’s most vociferous opponent and — according to one source familiar with the conversation — sent him a threat to “usurp” him.
Bitar has not sought to prosecute Hezbollah officials in the probe so far. Yet the Iran-backed armed group’s campaign against the popular judge has created yet another political fault-line in the crisis-ridden country. It’s pitted Hezbollah as the most staunch defender of the political establishment against a judge who many in the country hail has a hero.
It’s unclear if Thursday’s violence will expand or fizzle out, but another chapter of political crisis is the last thing the disaster-stricken country needs.
Lebanon is in the throes of one of the worst economic depressions since the mid-19th century, according to the World Bank. Inflation and poverty rates have skyrocketed in the past two years and basic goods are often hard to come by.