(BEIRUT) — Casualties have been reported after hours of gun battles in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, following calls led by Hezbollah and their allies to remove the judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive port blast.
At least six people have been killed and 30 wounded in ongoing clashes in the district of Tanouyeh after protesters gathered outside Beirut’s Justice Palace, according to the Lebanese Red Cross, who have dispatched six teams to assist the wounded and transport them to local hospitals.
Videos circulating on social media have shown armed men clashing in the streets with assault rifles, crowds fleeing and children taking shelter in the city’s schools. According to the Shiite group Hezbollah, peaceful protesters were targeted by sniper fire before the clashes broke out. The Lebanese Army has not responded to those claims.
The Lebanese Army warned citizens to go home, saying that anyone armed on the streets would be shot. The caretaker government has instructed citizens to take to basement shelters for the first time since the 1975-90 civil war.
“The deployed army units will shoot at any gunman on the roads and at anyone who shoots from anywhere else, and ask civilians to leave the streets,” the army posted on its official Twitter account.
Over 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stockpiled in the port of Beirut since 2013, detonated on Aug. 4, 2020, killing at least 200 people, wounding thousands of others and causing widespread damage across the city.
Earlier this week, a legal complaint brought against Judge Tarek Bitar was dismissed, allowing him to resume his work as the head of the investigation into the Beirut blast, which survivors and activists have criticized for a lack of movement. Hezbollah and its allies have claimed that the probe has been politically biased against Shiite ministers, and the politically contentious issue has threatened to derail the current caretaker government.
The investigation had been temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the complaint against Bitar.
An August report by Human Rights Watch alleged that some government officials “foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring.”
The caretaker government refuted the findings.
Lebanon is in the midst of one of the worst economic crises of the modern era, according to the World Bank. Fuel shortages, hyperinflation and a creaking health system have left at least 1.5 million people in need of financial aid.
Over the weekend, the country suffered a national power outage after the two main power stations ran out of fuel, before the army stepped in with an emergency shipment of gas. As a result, most families and businesses struggle with an allocation of four hours a day of electricity, with many neighborhoods relying instead on expensive backup generators, officials said.
The outbreak of violence is the worst seen in the city since 2008, according to observers, threatening to plunge the stricken country into further turmoil.
ABC News’ Leena Saidi and Nasser Atta contributed to this report.
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