At least six nonviolent protestors were allegedly killed by a Christian right-wing militia in Beirut today as they gathered for a demonstration against Tarek Bitar, the main judge in the port explosion probe. Members of the infamous Lebanese Forces are alleged to have opened fire as thousands gathered in the Lebanese capital for a rally planned by the Shi’ite Amal and Hezbollah parties. Snipers stationed in neighboring buildings opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least six individuals and injuring many more.
“The shooting was aimed at their heads,” the organizers stated, urging the Lebanese army to act and “stop these criminals,” while urging supporters to stay calm. The perpetrators of today’s shootings “wanted to drive the country into a deliberate strife,” according to Amal and Hezbollah, and were accused of leveraging last year’s deadly port explosion “for malicious political gains.”
As military trucks and troops invaded the city, telling residents to stay inside and threatening to fire at any armed persons on the streets, Beirut looked like a war zone. One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told a media outlet that she was unable to leave her house for work, characterizing the situation as “very bad.” “Rockets and bombs are being fired on the streets between Beirut’s Badaro and Tanouyeh districts, near the palace of justice,” she stated. “The judge has a close relationship with the US embassy. This has fueled resentment of Washington’s ongoing involvement in Lebanon’s internal matters,” she continued.
Today’s rally was organized in response to what is perceived as the politicization of last year’s Beirut port blast, which killed over 200 people and wounded hundreds more. Nobody has been held responsible for the explosion, and the trial has been hampered by delays caused by MPs’ refusal to testify. Mr. Bitar’s predecessor, Fadi Sawan, was forced to resign in December after charging former Prime Minister Hasan Diab and several top government officials.
Earlier this week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah asked for Mr. Bitar to be replaced with a “truthful and transparent investigator.” He accused the court of political prejudice, claiming that he focused on the Shi’ite movement and its sympathizers while disregarding others. Mr. Bitar issued an arrest warrant for ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a Hezbollah loyalist, on Tuesday, just before a complaint was filed requesting that he be removed from the investigation.
Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, denied responsibility for the shootings and called for an impartial investigation. In August, his right-wing militia carried out a violent attack on members of the Lebanese Communist Party at a commemoration of the port blast’s anniversary. Mr. Geagea was sentenced to life in prison for orchestrating four political killings, including the 1987 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami. In July 2005, he was released as part of an amnesty deal.