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Deadly Beirut gun battle signals rising tension over port probe

For Beirut residents already living through Lebanon’s worst economic crisis for more than three decades and rebuilding their city after last year’s devastating port blast, Thursday’s deadly gunfight was a warning of more trouble ahead.

In the city’s fiercest violence in over a decade, at least seven people were killed when unknown attackers in a majority Christian district opened fire on the supporters of two predominantly Shia Muslim parties. The gunfight was reminiscent of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which militias were mobilised along sectarian lines.

Television footage showed streets in southern Beirut filled with heavily armed young men under fire from hidden gunmen, a battle playing out on an old frontline between Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods. “It is the same parties fighting . . . that were fighting when I was a child,” said Jumanah Zabaneh, who lives close to where the clashes took place. “I’m 45 now . . . they’re still in power.” Funerals were held for the dead on Friday, including one woman reportedly shot on her balcony.

The violence was triggered by tensions over a judicial investigation into the blast in Beirut’s port last year, in which hundreds of tonnes of badly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing more than 200 people and laying waste to a swath of the city.

Leaked documents show that many officials knew about the danger posed by the stash of hazardous chemicals but failed to take action. As a result, the investigation has become fiercely contested by influential politicians, who fear they may lose immunity from prosecution and even face jail.

Hizbollah, a political party whose powerful Iran-backed paramilitary is Lebanon’s most powerful, and the Amal Movement, its Shia ally, had sent supporters on to the streets on Thursday in a show of force, calling for the removal of the judge leading the probe. Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has accused Judge Tarek Bitar of being politicised and demanded his dismissal.

Hizbollah and Amal “want[ed] to stir some sectarian tensions and divert the investigation”, said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based resident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. They also aimed “to show [they’re] angry because, ‘we’re powerful players in Lebanese politics and you can’t call us in for investigation . . . we’re above the law and we are the law’.”

So far Bitar, the second judge to lead the investigation, has charged a series of former ministers and security officials, including allies of Hizbollah, with criminal negligence. The accused have fought back with legal measures, petitions that have disrupted the investigation but ultimately been overturned by other judges.

Hizbollah could be afraid the probe has turned up incriminating information on them or simply “don’t want this culture of accountability”, said Hage Ali. “I fail to see how this does not translate into another string of security incidents,” he added.

Sami Nader, director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said Thursday’s demonstration “was [Hizbollah and Amal’s] last resort to try to leverage the street and to turn it into the sectarian battleground”.

What was not clear, said Nader, was whether or not the two parties had expected to come under fire: “Either they [Hizbollah] didn’t expect the reaction on the Christian side, because they were used to come and play the bad guy without anyone stopping them . . . or it was staged to create the condition to suspend the court.”

It is still unclear what happened but as Lebanon’s crisis has deepened, analysts have warned that more violence could erupt. Hizbollah blames the rightwing majority Christian Lebanese Forces party, once a civil war militia and now an opposition party, for an unprovoked assault on protesters.

The funeral of one of the Amal Movement members killed in the armed clashes in Beirut © Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

But those sympathetic to Lebanese Forces say protesters had “invaded” the predominantly Christian area of Ain al-Remeneh, chanting “Shia! Shia!” and vandalising property, provoking locals to defend themselves. The LF has denied responsibility but accused Hizbollah and Amal of creating the conditions for conflict. Dozens of Hizbollah and Amal supporters arrived at the scene heavily armed, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades.

“Ain el-Remeneh is a fortress of resistance” for Christians, said one civil war veteran. “If you say someone is a good fighter, an abadi, you say he is from Ain el-Remeneh.”

“We believe . . . Hizbollah was the victim of its own excess of power,” said Marc Saad, LF spokesperson, who said that although its supporters live in the area, the party did not know if they were the shooters. “Of course, we are opposing Hizbollah’s clandestine acts in the street against a judge who is doing his job.”

The Lebanese Judges Association on Friday said the judiciary would accept no more demands for Bitar’s removal. “Whoever has ears, listen well to the voice of the law,” the association said in a statement, “and stop tinkering in the final bastion of an idea of the state.”

For Beirut residents, their streets scattered with broken glass and walls pockmarked by fresh bullet holes, it is unclear what the probe can deliver under such intense pressure. Zabaneh’s eight-year-old daughter had been traumatised by the port explosion, which had severely damaged their home. The little girl had found solace in understanding that disaster as “evil people who did fireworks”.

But after Zabaneh had to rush her out of school and shelter her from falling bullets as they walked home, she asked Zabaneh, “Didn’t you say mommy that this will not happen again?”

“And I said yes, but these are new evil people.”

File source

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