The Lebanese Red Cross reported six deaths during the armed clashes in the Lebanese capital. Lebanon’s Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters snipers and gunmen “shot people in the head,” while four B7 rockets were fired into the air, in the worst violence the crisis-ridden capital has seen in over 10 years.
Hundreds of supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its main Shia ally, Amal, were marching toward the city’s Palace of Justice when shots were fired at the protesters by snipers on rooftops, forcing demonstrators and journalists to take cover, according to the country’s interior minister, an army statement and local broadcasters.
Social media footage showed masked gunmen, apparently affiliated with the protesters, firing RPGs and AK-47s from alleyways and from behind garbage dumps and street barriers.
Smoke was seen billowing from inside buildings that appeared to have been fired at. The epicenter of the violence, the Tayouneh neighborhood, is close to the birthplace of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and has raised the specter of further violence in the crisis-ridden country.
The gun and rocket fire appeared to pause around four hours after the battles began. Some traffic returned to the streets of the capital as Lebanon’s Civil Defense and Red Cross teams evacuated shellshocked residents from Tayouneh.
In a joint statement, Hezbollah and Amal accused right-wing Christian party, The Lebanese Forces, of being behind the sniper attacks. The party, which had previously threatened to send counter-demonstrators to Thursday’s planned protests, has not responded to the accusations.
“It’s clear that those who fired at the protesters were organized armed groups who have been planning this attack since yesterday,” one high-ranking Hezbollah official told CNN. “We will not fire back. They want to drag us into civil strife and we do not want to sow civil strife.”
Hezbollah has been a staunch opponent of Tarek Bitar, the popular judge who is leading the Beirut blast investigation and has sought the prosecution of high-level officials. This week, the judge issued an arrest warrant against lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil, a top Amal official and former finance minister.
Bitar has also issued arrest warrants against MP Nouhad Machnouk, an ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and an ex-interior minister.
Since his appointment in February, Bitar, who also heads Beirut’s criminal court, has sought top political and security officials for questioning in the Beirut blast probe. He is the second judicial investigator to head the investigation. The first judge tasked with handling the probe was dismissed after two ex-ministers charged in the investigation successfully filed a motion for his removal.
Several legal petitions by officials being prosecuted to dismiss Bitar have been unsuccessful.
During a televised speech on Monday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah chastised the judge, accusing him of being “politicized.”
For two years, Lebanon has been in the throes of an economic depression that has led to skyrocketing inflation, poverty rates and unemployment, as well as rapid decay in the country’s infrastructure.