Tensions over a probe into last year’s massive blast in Beirut burst into the worst street violence in more than a decade yesterday, with six people shot dead and gun battles reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of attacking its supporters, who were gathering to demand the removal of the judge investigating last year’s port blast.
AFP correspondents said yesterday’s violence started with sniper fire from residential buildings targeting the Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who returned fire with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port blast, which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.
Coming after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing Bitar’s probe would split the country, the violence may create a pretext to shut down or shelve further investigation into the explosion.
President Michel Aoun vowed that those responsible for yesterday’s gunfire would be held accountable.
“Weapons cannot return as a means of communication between Lebanese parties, because we all agreed to turn this dark page of our history,” he said in reference to the civil war.
During the attack, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets hitting buildings and residents running for cover.
The shooting began from the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, the site of a massacre that helped ignite the civil war, before spiralling into an exchange of fire, a military source said.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said all the dead were from one side, meaning Shias.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement said groups had fired at protesters from rooftops, aiming at their heads in an attack that they said aimed to drag Lebanon into conflict.
The army deployed in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.
It later said it arrested nine people, including a Syrian.
Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Reuters that the events were a setback to the government but would be overcome.
“Lebanon is going through a difficult phase not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room,” he said. “We have a lot of stages after that to complete recovery.”
Judge Bitar has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate and one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record.
All have denied wrongdoing.
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