At least three protesters were killed and several injured as clashes erupted in Beirut on Thursday, according to the Lebanese Red Cross and reports published by local media.
Eyewitnesses said they heard at least two explosions near the site where a protest was supposed to be held by Iran-backed Shia militia Hezbollah against a judge who is investigating last year’s devastating blast at Beirut’s port.
Tensions over the probe have boiled for months. Hezbollah and its allies are leading demands to remove Judge Tarek Bitar, who they accuse of bias.
Lebanon’s army said on Thursday protesters in Beirut were fired on while they were heading to the Palace of Justice to hold a demonstration against the judge.
“While protesters were going to the Palace of Justice, they were fired at in the Tayounah area,” an army statement said.
The army statement also warned it would shoot at any person carrying a gun, urging people to remain at their homes.
Heavy gunfire erupted when the Shia group’s supporters were trying to cross the Tayouneh roundabout, which is located at borders between Shia and Christian dominated areas and was a frontline in the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
The protesters were apparently making their war to the judicial palace. Tayouneh is on the way from the predominantly Shia southern suburbs of Beirut to the Judicial Palace.
The port explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record, killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of the capital Beirut.
Video footage showed heavy gunfire and clashes between the Lebanese army and unidentified gunmen near the Ain al-Romaneh area, which is dominated by Christians seen as supporters of 14 March, Hezbollah’s political opponents.
Army soldiers could be seen firing an automatic machine gun from the top of an armoured vehicle towards a building where suspects were believed to have taken shelter. Minutes later, two explosions were heard near the clashes site, followed by the withdrawal of the troops stationed nearby, according to local news reports.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
Hezbollah and its ally, the Shia Amal Movement group, issued a joint statement saying their supporters were fired at by gunmen on roofs of buildings. The statement also called for calm and warned against discord and chaos.
The protesters “were exposed to direct fire from snipers on the roofs of the buildings, followed by intense shooting that resulted in [the falling of] martyrs and serious injuries, as the shooting was directed at the heads,” the statement said.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV later confirmed “three martyrs” and a number of wounded had been taken to a hospital in the Shia southern suburbs, indicating that the casualties were Shia.
Judge 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 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 Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicised probe.
The group says the investigation is targeting its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts over the seven years that the ammonium nitrate being was stored unsafely at the port.
Additional reporting by agencies