Lebanese main victims as armed militias fight in Beirut
Armed clashes broke out between Shia militias Hezbollah and Amal, and the Lebanese army in Beirut on Thursday, leaving at least 6 dead and 30 wounded, following a protest against Judge Tarek Bitar who is leading the investigation into the Beirut port explosion.
The protest started out peacefully, with Hezbollah and Amal supporters burning pictures of Bitar and US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea in front of the Beirut Palace of Justice. The jubilant mood was interrupted as shots rang out a few hundred meters away from the protest. It is unclear who fired the first shots, but the Minister of Interior said that snipers were likely responsible, since the first protesters were shot in the head. Both Hezbollah and Amal claim Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party and former militia, attacked protesters.
The ensuing violence was the worst the country has seen since 2008, when militias clashed in the streets of Beirut.
The clashes were the physical manifestation of the evolving political crisis surrounding Judge Bitar’s investigation into the Beirut port explosion which killed at least 218 and wounded 6,500. In recent weeks Bitar has drawn the ire of major political forces in Lebanon, as the powerful political figures he has targeted have tried to halt his investigation in the court by alleging political bias. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite Militia Hezbollah, has accused him of doing the work of foreign powers.
Exchange of gunfire in Amal neighbourhood following protest in front of Qadr al adaleh in Beirut pic.twitter.com/SL2NFmhSL5— Will Christou (@will_christou) October 14, 2021
Chaos quickly enveloped the streets of Beirut as throngs of Amal and Hezbollah supporters congregated around Tayouneh roundabout, carrying with them AK-47s, RPGs, pistols and other weapons.
Battle lines were drawn around the roundabout, an old dividing line between the Shia and the Christian strongholds during the Lebanese civil war.
Amal gunmen fired haphazardly towards the other end of the roundabout, men taking turns diving out behind cover to spray a hail of gunfire towards the other end of the roundabout. Occasionally this was answered by a retaliatory volley of bullets, riddling the residential buildings with bullets. The target was unseen and the enemy’s identity was unknown. The violence was unorganised and there was no leadership to direct the mostly-young men slinging powerful weapons.
When asked who they were shooting at, Amal gunmen offered differing explanations. “Hezbollah” one said. “The Lebanese army!” another interrupted. Another gunman just shrugged, telling The New Arab that they were “shooting at the walls.”
As the violence escalated, families ran from the scene and took shelter in nearby buildings. A father clutched his toddler to his chest and ran from the gunfire.
Wails of grief emanated from a building whose courtyard Amal fighters were using for cover. A 39-year old mother was shot through the head by an errant bullet; her son found her body pooled in blood.
As the Lebanese Civil Defense carted away the body, the neighbours clasped the 18-year old son on the back and gave their condolences. “It’s all chaos--it hurts everyone,” a neighbour who declined to give his name, told The New Arab.
Smoke pours from a residential apartment building after Amal fighter shoots an RPG at it. They believed someone was shooting at them from there. pic.twitter.com/rifqTdMhqi— Will Christou (@will_christou) October 14, 2021
The Lebanese army announced that they would shoot any gunman on sight and urged civilians to stay off the streets. The arrival of the army, nor the leadership of Hezbollah and Amal’s calls for a cessation in violence, stopped the gunmen from shooting.
The husband of the wife killed arrived home, his police-issued handgun still in his waistband. When his son saw him, his stoic silence was broken and they collapsed into a tearful embrace.
As they sobbed, a man in a Hugo Boss shirt shot an AK-47 towards the roundabout, the rifle careening wildly.
Another man busied himself with loading an RPG, despite the surrounding crowd’s pleas not to fire. Once the small bomb was loaded, he was determined to use it. He launched the missile towards a residential apartment building on the other side of the roundabout.
Fighting subsided around 3:30, leaving the Tayouneh area littered with debris and glass and a population terrified by the sudden eruption of violence.