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  14 Oct 2021, 20:13

Deadly clashes rock Beirut after rally against port blast judge

   BEIRUT, Oct 14, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - Heavy fighting claimed at least six 
lives and left dozens wounded in Lebanon's capital Thursday as an escalation 
of tensions around last year's massive portside explosion turned parts of 
Beirut into a warzone.

   The military 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 
explosions mixed with the wail of ambulance sirens, broke out after shots 
were fired at a demonstration by the Muslim Shiite movement Hezbollah and its 
Amal party allies.

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

   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 into the 
accident.

   AFP correspondents said the 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."

   - 'Intense shooting' -

   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 while inside her home, a doctor at the Sahel hospital in Beirut's 
southern suburbs 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 to demand Bitar's removal.

   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 clashes on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian 
party that is staunchly opposed to the Iran-backed group.

   "Lebanese Forces fighters spread out on rooftops fired sniper shots with 
the aim to kill," they said in a joint statement.

   AFP could not independently verify the claims.

   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.

   - 'Afraid of stray bullets' -

   In the chaos, residents cowered in corridors away from windows, as some 
were shattered by the gunfire.

   A limp body lying on a main street was carried away by rescuers as gunfire 
rained around them.

   Pictures circulating on social media showed children in a school ducking 
under desks and gathering on the floor outside classrooms.

   "I'm with my cousin and my aunt, and we're hiding in a two-square-metre 
space between rooms because we are afraid of stray bullets," said Bissan al-
Fakih, who lives in the area.

   "We're wondering if we could leave, but we're not sure if there is a way 
out".

   Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, called the 
violence "a horrific reminder of unhealed wounds" from the civil war.

   One social media user wrote that "Beirut now is similar to the Beirut of 
my childhood".

   The man at the centre of the tensions, judge Bitar, is seen as a last hope 
for justice by many Lebanese but has been condemned as biased and corrupt by 
political leaders.

   Bitar has sparked deep divisions within the government between those who 
want to keep him in his place and those who are pushing for him to go.

   The Court of Cassation on Thursday turned down a lawsuit filed by two ex-
ministers demanding his replacement, a court official told AFP on condition 
of anonymity.

   It is the second time this month that the judiciary has ruled in favour of 
the judge. But the investigator's fate is all but clear as Hezbollah and Amal 
press ahead with a campaign aimed at removing him.

   Political analyst Karim Bitar meanwhile 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". 

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