At least six people were killed and several others wounded in armed clashes that broke out in Beirut Thursday during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year’s massive blast in the city's port.
The protest outside the Justice Palace was called for by the Hezbollah group and its allies from Amal movement who are demanding the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse detonated on August 4, 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighborhoods.
Bitar, the second judge to lead the complicated investigation, has come up against formidable opposition from Hezbollah and its allies who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with the party.
None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.
Thursday's exchanges of fire involving snipers, pistols, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades were a dangerous escalation of tensions over the domestic probe.
In scenes reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets bouncing off buildings and people running for cover.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
He followed up with the army chief to see what steps were being taken to control the situation, and called for the arrest of those responsible, a statement said.
The army said the protesters were fired on while they were heading to the Palace of Justice to hold the demonstration.
"While protesters were going to the Palace of Justice they were fired at in the Tayyouneh area," an army statement said.
The army deployed heavily in the area and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
Hezbollah and Amal said armed groups had fired at the protesters from rooftops, aiming at their heads in an attack they said aimed to drag the country to strife.
In a statement, the parties called on the army to intervene quickly to detain the perpetrators and called on their supporters to remain calm.