Middle East Gunfire in Beirut as Hezbollah supporters protest against blast investigator

Gunfire in Beirut as Hezbollah supporters protest against blast investigator

Heavy gunfire was heard in Beirut on Thursday near an area where supporters of the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah and its allies were gathering to protest against the judge investigating last year’s catastrophic port explosion.

People ran for cover as shots and ambulance sirens could be heard in a live broadcast by Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV. Its reporter at the scene said the source of the shooting at the Tayouneh traffic circle was not immediately clear.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

A court earlier on Thursday dismissed a legal complaint against the judge, Tarek Bitar, documents showed – allowing him to resume his investigation into the August explosion, which killed more than 200 people.

Bitar has been under enormous pressure from groups that accuse him of bias, with Hezbollah leading calls for his removal.

The Tayouneh area is located on the border between Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods of Beirut, and was a frontline in the 1975-90 civil war. It is on the way from the predominantly Shi’ite southern suburbs of Beirut to the Justice Palace, where the protest was due to take place.

Tensions over Bitar’s investigation into the blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, are fuelling divisions in Lebanon and diverting the new government’s focus away from tackling an economic meltdown.

Bitar’s opponents have objected to his attempts to question senior politicians and security officials on suspicion of negligence that allowed a huge stash of ammonium nitrate to blow up, killing more than 200 people and devastating much of Beirut.

Several hundred men gathered near the judicial palace early on Thursday to take part in the protest. Some trod on a picture of Bitar. The Lebanese army deployed heavily in the area.

Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicised probe only focused on certain people.

These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shi’ite Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts over the seven years that the ammonium nitrate being was stored unsafely at the port.