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Gunfire breaks out at Beirut as protest against a judge; 6 killed

 In the most violent street fighting in Lebanon's capital for years, at least six people were killed and many more were injured.

These firefights along the former front line of the 1975-90 civil conflict involved guns, rocket-propelled and automatic rifles. They were reminiscent of that conflict. Ambulances raced to help the injured and gunfire was heard for several hours. Snipers fired from buildings. Apartment windows were broken by bullets. Residents fled to shelters and schools were evacuated.

The chaos raised fears of sectarian violence returning to a country already in multiple crises, which included one of the worst economic crises in the last 150 years.

The origin of the shooting was unclear. It began shortly after the protest by Iran-backed Hezbollah, its Shiite allies the Amal Movement, against Judge Tarek Bitar who is leading investigations into the massive port explosion last year. Hezbollah and its allies claim that the judge selected politicians to be questioned, many of whom were allied with Hezbollah.

Tensions surrounding the port blast contributed to Lebanon's many problems, including currency collapse, hyperinflation and soaring poverty, as well as an energy crisis that led to prolonged electricity blackouts.

Bitar was attacked by officials from both Shiite parties, including Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah leader), who accused Bitar of politicizing the investigation through charging and summoning certain officials. They want him to be removed.

The 14-month-long investigation has not led to any charges against anyone associated with Hezbollah.

The probe focuses on hundreds of tonnes of ammonium-nitrate improperly stored in a port warehouse which exploded on Aug. 4, 2020. At least 215 people were killed, thousands of people were injured and many homes were destroyed in the blast. It was the nation's largest non-nuclear blast and further devastated a country already plagued by political divisions, financial problems, and other difficulties.

Bitar is the second judge to head the complex investigation. After legal challenges, Bitar succeeded his predecessor.

Two Hezbollah allies filed a request to remove Bitar's post from Bitar on Thursday. Bitar was removed by an appeals court.

Many considered the calls for the removal of the judge to be blatant interference with the work and function of the judiciary.

After Hezbollah's and Amal's call for protests at the Justice Palace (located on the former frontline that separated predominantly Muslim and Christian areas in Beirut), the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized support Wednesday evening. Social media videos Wednesday night showed large crosses-wielding Christian Lebanese Forces supporters marching in the streets.

Two Shiite groups stated that their protesters were under attack from snipers who had been deployed on rooftops. Two Hezbollah members were among the dead, which included all Shiites.

Also, the army claimed that protesters were under fire. However, later in the evening it was revealed that an "altercation" and "exchange of fire" took place as protesters headed towards the Justice Palace.

While the U.S. was in town, violence broke out. The violence took place while U.S. The street action caused a slight disruption to her schedule.

In apparent criticism of Hezbollah, Nuland stated that an impartial judiciary was the guarantor for all rights at an airport news conference. She stated that the Lebanese people and the families of the victims in the port blast deserve nothing less. "Today's unacceptable violence is a clear indication of the stakes."

An Associated Press journalist witnessed a man with a gun open fire and gunmen firing in the direction protesters from a balcony as the violence escalated. Many men were injured and fell to the ground. After the fighting between the Christian and Muslim sides of the capital, the army sent troops to patrol the area.

According to the Lebanese Red Cross, at least 30 people were injured. A mother of five was killed when she was shot in her head. Hezbollah stated that it would be holding a funeral for the victim and two fighters on Friday. Amal, headed by Nabih Beri, Parliament Speaker, has planned separate funerals for two of its members.

Four projectiles crashed near Freres de Furn el Chebbak school in France, causing panic. Students huddled together in central corridors, reminiscent of civil war scenes. The neighborhoods that were subject to constant gunfire saw smoke.

After the deployment of army troops, the shooting stopped around four hours later.

A journalist who is a specialist in court affairs, YoussefDiab stated that the protest was intended to show force and send a message that Hezbollah or Amal have control of the streets. They were not the only ones in control of the street, as the events proved.

Diab stated that there is another road and that confronting it could lead to a major change in the situation.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a statement urging calm and caution, and asking people not to get "dragged into civil war."

Haneen Chemaly from Beirut, heads a local social service group. She hid her baby, aged six months, in the shelter of her building and at her neighbor's house. She said that Lebanon's leaders were leading the country into civil conflict and she was suing them.

She said, "They (have) driven us into bankruptcy, destruction and now they're scaring us with fear of civil war."

Michel Younan, a resident in Ain el-Remeneh neighborhood inspected his car which had suffered damage during the fighting. "There were protests, then suddenly gunfire started... He said that shooting, RPGs and everything were all part of the incident. Isn't that a shame? They took us back to the times of war."

These clashes could cause Mikati's month old government to fail before it tackles Lebanon's economic crisis.

After Hezbollah demanded that the government take immediate action against Bitar, Wednesday's cabinet meeting was cancelled. A minister from Hezbollah said that he and other Shiite members of the cabinet would walk out if Bitar wasn't removed. This further complicated Mikati’s mission.

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