Six killed as clashes rock Beirut

Published October 15, 2021
An army soldier helps a schoolgirl get to her parents, after a gunfire erupted in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. — Reuters
An army soldier helps a schoolgirl get to her parents, after a gunfire erupted in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. — Reuters

BEIRUT: Heavy fighting claimed at least six lives and left dozens wounded in Lebanon’s capital on Thursday as an escalation of tensions around last year’s massive portside explosion turned parts of Beirut into a warzone.

The army 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 bloody unrest, in which the sound of automatic gunfire and grenade blasts mixed with the wail of ambulance sirens, broke out after shots were fired at a demonstration by Hezbollah and Amal movements.

The protesters were rallying against judge Tarek Bitar, tasked with investigating the massive ammonium nitrate explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital on August 4 last year.

Tensions around last year’s massive explosion turn parts of Lebanon’s capital into a warzone

The judge had in recent days been in the sights of Hezbollah and Amal in particular for insisting on subpoenaing top officials in his probe.

AFP correspondents said Thursday’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.

“I can’t handle these loud sounds, especially the RPGs,” said one resident trapped in the combat zone in the city’s southern Tayouneh area, who gave his name only as Samer.

“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”. He said at least six people were killed, all by gunfire, without specifying who fired the shots.

The Lebanese Red Cross put the number of wounded at 30.

In the chaos, bullets smashed into houses and left craters in the walls of buildings, while many panicked civilians were trapped in their homes.

Among those killed was a 24-year-old who was hit in the head by a stray bullet inside her home, a doctor at Beirut’s Sahel hospital told AFP.

Heavy fire rang out as ambulances rushed the wounded through the deserted streets, a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, where the protesters had rallied.

The army made some arrests as they raided residential buildings looking for those behind the sniper fire, AFP correspondents said.

Hezbollah and Amal blamed the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, that is staunchly opposed to the Iran-backed group, charging in a joint statement that they had “fired sniper shots with the aim to kill”.

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.

Geagea condemned the clashes and called on authorities to launch an investigation.

Political analyst Karim Bitar 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”.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2021

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