IMAGES A family runs holding their child as they flee the Tayouneh neighbourhood of Beirut during intensive gunfire clashes that broke out following a Beirut rally organised by the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements to demand the dismissal of the lead investigator into last year’s port blast.
Heavy fighting claimed at least six lives and left dozens wounded in Lebanon’s capital Thursday as an escalation of tensions around last year’s massive portside explosion turned parts of Beirut into a warzone.
The military deployed tanks and troops to quell the street battles that sparked memories of the 1975-1990 civil war for a city already traumatised by last year’s blast disaster and Lebanon’s worst-ever economic crisis.
The protesters were rallying against judge Tarek Bitar, tasked with investigating the massive explosion at Beirut port which killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital on August 4 last year.
AFP correspondents said the 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.
“It’s the trauma of the Beirut blast coming back all over again.”
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said the “exchange started with sniper fire, with the first casualty shot in the head”.
The Lebanese Red Cross put the number of wounded at 30.
Among those killed was a 24-year-old who was hit in the head by a stray bullet while inside her home, a doctor at the Sahel hospital in Beirut’s southern suburbs told AFP.
The army made some arrests as they raided residential buildings looking for those behind the sniper fire, AFP correspondents said.
“Lebanese Forces fighters spread out on rooftops fired sniper shots with the aim to kill,” they said in a joint statement.
Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea hit back, saying the real reason for the violence was the “widespread proliferation of arms,” in reference to Hezbollah’s arsenal.
– ‘Afraid of stray bullets’ –
A limp body lying on a main street was carried away by rescuers as gunfire rained around them.
“I’m with my cousin and my aunt, and we’re hiding in a two-square-metre space between rooms because we are afraid of stray bullets,” said Bissan al-Fakih, who lives in the area.
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, called the violence “a horrific reminder of unhealed wounds” from the civil war.
The man at the centre of the tensions, judge Bitar, is seen as a last hope for justice by many Lebanese but has been condemned as biased and corrupt by political leaders.
The Court of Cassation on Thursday turned down a lawsuit filed by two ex-ministers demanding his replacement, a court official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Political analyst Karim Bitar meanwhile voiced concern about more trouble ahead, saying that “Hezbollah taking to the streets and throwing all its weight in this battle …could lead to big clashes and to the destabilisation of the entire country”.
Originally published as Deadly clashes rock Beirut after rally against port blast judge