GRAPHIC IMAGES WARNING: Bullets bounced off buildings and people ran for cover during bursts of gunfire which was sparked by an investigation into a deadly blast that killed 200 people
Six people have died in the worst street violence Beirut has since in more than a decade which was sparked by an investigation into a deadly blast.
Bullets bounced off buildings and people ran for cover during bursts of gunfire which lasted several hours on what was once a frontline in the war.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers had opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.
One witness claimed teachers at one school were force to tell their young pupils to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite 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.
The explosion killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.
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.
The army initially said gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods.
It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.
The deaths come after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing Judge Bitar’s probe would split the country, the violence may create a pretext to shut down or shelve further investigation into the explosion.
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.
The deadly blast was caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate and one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record.
All have denied wrongdoing.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun vowed that those responsible for the gunfire would be held accountable, saying in a televised speech it was “unacceptable that weapons are once more the means of communication among Lebanese rivals”.
LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia in the war, said earlier that the shooting was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be preserved.
Local television stations broadcast live footage of bullets hitting buildings and residents running for cover during the attack.
A military source said one of the victims was a woman who was hit by a bullet in her home.
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.
Mr Mawlawi said all the dead were from one side, meaning Shi’ites.
Hezbollah and the 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.
The army flooded 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 the events were a setback to the government but would be overcome.
He added: “Lebanon is going through a difficult phase not an easy one. We are like a patient in front of the emergency room.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
“We have a lot of stages after that to complete recovery.”
The US and France said Lebanon’s judiciary must be allowed to investigate the port blast in an independent and impartial manner.
US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said during a visit to Beirut: “The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less.
“This unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
On Wednesday, Mr Geagea rejected what he described as any submission to “intimidation” by Hezbollah over Judge Bitar, calling on Lebanese to be ready for peaceful strike action if the “other side” tried to impose its will by force.
Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, Hezbollah has accused Judge Bitar of conducting a politicised investigation only focused on certain people.