Five people have died in mass clashes that broke out in Beirut during a protest demanding an end to a judicial investigation into the last year's massive blast in the city s port.
The Lebanese interior minister confirmed the deaths and gunfire reportedly wounded more than a dozen others. The deployment of soldiers failed to stem the violence, which took on a sectarian tone. The fighting was near a frontline of a Civil War-era strike in which militias from Maronite Christian and Shia Muslim blocs have clashed previously.
The rally had been led by members of Amal and Hezbollah two predominantly Shia political parties whose respective leaders, Nabih Berri, and Hassan Nasrallah, had increasingly opposed an investigation into the blast led by judge, Tarek Bitar.
How is the first gunfight started was not immediately clear.
A court earlier on Thursday 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 that has made little progress in identifying the culprits behind one of the biggest industrial accidents in modern history.
Lebanon port had been a microcosm of Beirut politics, which is run by fifdoms and beset by endemic corruption that led it to bankruptcy. Stakeholders behind the port gates were loyal to political masters who have remained in power 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 be 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 political impunity that has characterised Lebanon since the signing of the pact to end the war.
However, demands that all aspects of the explosion be investigated seem almost impossible to deliver, with ministers invited 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, appear well beyond the judge s capacity to explore.
Earlier on Thursday, supporters of the two Shia movements had formed near the judicial palace to demand Bitar's replacement. Protesters were mobilised through social media forums on Wednesday evening by a firebrand speech from Nasrallah who called for an honest judge to replace Bitar.
Similarly, Bitar had warned Ali Hasan Khalil, a member of parliament from Amal of an escalating political crisis if it was not sidelined. He had been issued with an arrest warrant, together with two other ministers.
The new government of the Prime Minister, Najib Miqati, is 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 called for their supporters not to escalate tensions as gunmen trickled into the area. Lebanese army increased its presence throughout the afternoon.
Some people are so deeply polarised, said Mazen Khoury, a resident of the neighbourhood of Badaro. The Christians are the ones who lost to the port explosion, their homes and futures. There is a suspicion that other parties caused this and changed the face of the country.