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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Six killed in gunfire at Beirut protest over blast investigation
A man carrying a girl runs after gunfire erupted in Beirut on Thursday. --Reuters
A man carrying a girl runs after gunfire erupted in Beirut on Thursday. --Reuters

Beirut: At least six people were killed and 30 injured in Beirut as gunfire broke out at a protest against the judge investigating last year's blast at the city's port, the Lebanese Red Cross said.


The protest drew followers of Hezbollah movement and its allies. They were gathering at the Justice Palace when the gunfire erupted, sending people running for cover.


Hours after the violence started on Thursday morning, the army was slowly restoring order by the afternoon. Tanks and soldiers were deployed on the streets that saw the worst of the mayhem.


The ground was strewn with broken glass and several buildings were riddled with bullets.


The army warned that its personnel will shoot at any gunmen on the streets and told civilians to leave the area. Soldiers helped to evacuate the elderly who were stranded in their homes.


Prime Minister Najib Mikati called on everyone to remain calm and "not be dragged into civil strife for any reason."


A witness said the gunfire first came from a building in the Tayouneh neighbourhood and then wider clashes erupted.


Residents of Tayouneh were seen carrying their children and leaving their homes as gunfire intensified. One woman said it reminded her of Lebanon's civil war years.


Some school children were held in their classrooms to protect them. A woman was seen shouting and crying as she stood at the door of one school.


It remained unclear who was behind the gunfire.


Hezbollah and its close ally, the Amal movement, said sniper fire from rooftops of buildings resulted in deaths and serious injuries among their followers.


"This attack by armed and organized groups aims to drag the country into a deliberate strife," they said in a statement.


"Amal Movement and Hezbollah call on the Lebanese army to take responsibility and intervene quickly to stop these criminals. They also call on all supporters and partisans to calm down and not be drawn into malicious strife," the statement said.


UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, expressed concern. "At this juncture, it is critical to show maximum restraint, ensure that calm is restored and that citizens are protected," Wronecka said in a tweet.


The violence came shortly after a Lebanese court rejected a request by two former government ministers to remove judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the deadly Beirut port blast.


Tensions rose on Tuesday when the probe into the blast was put on hold — the second time in less than a month — as ex-ministers filed lawsuits against the investigative judge questioning his neutrality.


Former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter filed a lawsuit on Tuesday requesting the dismissal of Bitar, saying he was violating rules on questioning government members.


Khalil and Zeaiter are close to Hezbollah and Amal. They have led a fierce attack against Bitar and demanded he be replaced with a "transparent and honest judge."


Others accuse Hezbollah of seeking to influence the investigation.


The new lawsuits were filed after Bitar issued an arrest warrant against Khalil when he failed to show up for questioning, state media said.


Bitar is the second judge appointed to investigate the blast after Fadi Sawan was removed from the case in February.


Last year, Sawan filed charges against acting premier Hassan Diab and three former ministers for negligence.


But two of the ministers submitted a request to the state prosecution that Sawan be removed from the case, questioning his neutrality.


In July, Bitar announced legal proceedings against a number of politicians and security chiefs, including Diab.


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