Armed clashes erupt at demonstrations demanding end to judge’s investigation of huge blast last year.
Five people have died in armed clashes that broke out in Beirut during a protest demanding an end to a judicial investigation into last year’s massive blast in the city’s port.
The Lebanese interior ministry confirmed the deaths, and gunfire reportedly wounded more than a dozen other people. The deployment of soldiers failed to stem the violence, which took on a sectarian tone. The fighting happened near a civil war-era frontline in which militias from Maronite Christian and Shia Muslim blocs have previously clashed.
The rally had been led by members of Amal and Hezbollah, two predominantly Shia political parties whose respective leaders – Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament, and Hassan Nasrallah – had increasingly opposed the investigation into the blast, which is led by a judge, Tarek Bitar. It was not immediately clear how the gunfight started.
Earlier on Thursday a court threw out a second attempt to remove Bitar, whose investigation is seen by many Lebanese as a make-or-break event for the crippled state, which has made little progress in establishing the culprits behind one of the biggest industrial accidents in modern history.
Beirut port had been a microcosm of the politics of Lebanon, which is run by fiefdoms and beset by endemic graft that has led it to bankruptcy. Stakeholders behind the port gates were loyal to political masters who have remained in charge since the end of the civil war.
The catastrophic blast on 4 August 2020 was caused by up to 2,750 tonnes of weapons-grade ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire, which is thought to have been caused by welding work. The fireball destroyed the bulk cargo terminal and much of the adjoining neighbourhoods, killing at least 215 people. It led to calls for an end to the political impunity that has characterised Lebanon since the pact to end the war was signed.
However, demands that all aspects of the explosion be investigated seem almost impossible to deliver, with ministers summoned for investigation refusing to turn up, others filing lawsuits against Bitar and yet more directly linked to claims of negligence not being implicated at all. Beyond that, any regional dimensions, which have long been the source of speculation, seem well beyond the judge’s capacity to explore.
On Thursday supporters of the two Shia movements gathered near the judicial palace to demand Bitar’s replacement. Protesters were mobilised via social media forums on Wednesday evening and by a firebrand speech from Nasrallah, who called for an “honest” judge to replace Bitar.
Similarly, Ali Hasan Khalil, a member of parliament from Amal, had warned of a “political escalation” if Bitar was not sidelined. He had been issued with an arrest warrant along with two other ministers.
The new government of the prime minister, Najib Miqati, has been under increasing pressure from both sides to either abandon the investigation or replace the lead judge. An earlier judge was sacked after he ran afoul of politicians.
Hezbollah and Amal both called for their supporters not to escalate tensions as gunmen trickled into the area. The Lebanese army was increasing its presence throughout the afternoon.
“We are so deeply polarised,” said Mazen Khoury, a resident of the nearby Badaro neighbourhood. “The Christians are the ones that lost the most out of the port explosion, their homes and their futures. There is a suspicion that other parties caused this and changed the face of the country. What is happening today reflects that.”
Article written by: Martin Chulov
Photo credit: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images