Sun. Oct 24th, 2021

Armed clashes have broken out in Beirut during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year’s massive blast in the city’s port, as tensions over the investigation boiled over.

Gunfire rocked the capital and ambulances attended the scene amid reports of casualties.

The protest outside the Justice Palace was called for by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, who are demanding the removal of a judge, Tarek Bitar.

It was not immediately clear what triggered the gunfire but tensions were high along a former civil war frontline between Muslim Shia and Christian areas.

A witness saw a man open fire with a pistol during the protest. Another witness said he saw people shooting in the direction of protesters from the balcony of a building.

At least two men were injured and bleeding. There was a heavy army presence in the area after the shooting.

A protest against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation, near the Justice Palace in Beirut.
Protesters demand the removal of Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation, near the Justice Palace in Beirut. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrates that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse detonated on 4 August 2020, killing at least 215 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of nearby neighbourhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and has further devastated Lebanon, already roiled by political divisions and economic and financial meltdown.

Bitar, the second judge to lead the investigation, has faced formidable opposition from Hezbollah and its allies, who accuse him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah. None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.

The armed clash could derail Lebanon’s month-long government, even before it begins tackling the economic crisis. A cabinet meeting was cancelled on Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge.

One Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar was not removed.

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