Tank deployments and deadly exchanges of fire turned the Tayyouneh area on Beirut's southern edge into a war zone Thursday after a demonstration organized by Hizbullah and Amal Movement against the lead investigator into last year's devastating port blast turned violent.
Heavy fire rang out as ambulances rushed the wounded through the deserted streets, a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, where hundreds of black-clad protesters had gathered moments earlier to demand Tarek Bitar's removal.
The judge has in recent days been in the sights of the Hizbullah and Amal in particular for insisting on subpoenaing top officials in his probe into last year's deadly explosion in Beirut port.
According to Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, at least six people were killed, all of them by gunfire.
They included a 24-year-old who was hit in the head by a stray bullet while inside her home, a doctor at the Sahel hospital in Beirut's southern suburbs told AFP.
The Lebanese Red Cross put the number of wounded at 30.
AFP correspondents heard several loud bangs in the area, likely from heavy shelling, and saw plumes of black smoke rising from an apparent fire.
A limp body lying on a main street was carried away by rescuers as gunfire rained around them, the correspondents said.
Residents cowered in corridors away from windows, as some were shattered by the gunfire. Some scurried outside, running towards ambulances as civil defense volunteers tried to evacuate civilians, including young children.
Pictures circulating on social media showed children in a nearby school ducking under desks and gathering on the floor outside classrooms.
"I'm with my cousin and my aunt, and we're hiding in a two-square-meter space between rooms because we are afraid of stray bullets," said Bissan al-Fakih, who lives a few hundred meters away from the clashes.
"We're wondering if we could leave, but we're not sure if there is a way out".
Another resident said he took shelter in a corridor for two hours before he managed to find a taxi to get him out.
"I can't handle these loud sounds, especially the RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), its the trauma of the Beirut blast coming back all over again," said the resident, who gave his name only as Samer.
The army reported "bursts of gunfire in the area of Tayyouneh-Badaro," a largely residential area of the capital.
"The army rushed to cordon off the area and deploy in its neighborhoods and their entrance. Patrols started as did the search for the shooters to detain them," it said.
In a follow-up statement, the army warned it would open fire at anyone firing live rounds, calling on civilians to evacuate the area.
Prime Minister Najib Miqati called for calm to be restored and warned against attempts to drag Lebanon into violence.
In a statement, Hizbullah and Amal accused "armed and organized groups" of assaulting their supporters.
"They were exposed to direct fire from snipers... followed by intense shooting," they said in a joint statement.
They said the violence was deliberate and aimed to drag the country into violence, while calling on their supporters to remain calm and de-escalate.
Hizbullah's al-Manar TV blamed the Lebanese Forces party, which has a major presence in the Ain el-Rummaneh area near Tayyouneh.
Seen as a last hope for justice by many Lebanese but condemned as biased and corrupt by political leaders, Bitar has sparked deep divisions within the government between those who want to keep him in his place and those who are pushing for him to go.
The Court of Cassation on Thursday turned down a lawsuit filed by two ex-ministers demanding his replacement, a court official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
"Bitar does not fall under the court's jurisdiction so it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal," the official said.
It is the second time this month that the judiciary has ruled in favor of the judge, who is hailed by human rights groups and relatives of blast victims as a symbol of judicial independence in a country where political impunity has long been the norm.
The ruling, which goes into effect immediately, would allow Bitar to resume inquiries into the August 4, 2020 explosion which killed more than 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the capital.
But the investigator's fate is all but clear as Hizbullah and Amal press ahead with a campaign aimed at removing him.
Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Monday called for an "honest" judge to replace Bitar.
Tensions spilled into Cabinet with a meeting on Tuesday ending in a row as ministers affiliated with Hizbullah and Amal pressed the government to support their demand to replace Bitar.
A follow-up session scheduled for Wednesday was postponed, signaling no agreement has been reached between factions in the cabinet, with some ministers arguing the government should not intervene in judicial matters.
Amal Movement and Hizbullah accused "armed and organized groups" of assaulting their supporters in Tayyouneh, in a joint statement Thursday.
They said that “peaceful protesters heading to the Justice Palace to denounce politicization of the port investigation were exposed to direct fire by snipers from the roof of a building at 10:45 am, followed by intense shooting.”
“The shooting was aimed at the heads,” the statement said, “resulting in the falling of martyrs and serious injuries.”
“This attack by armed and organized groups aims to drag the country into a premeditated strife,” the statement said.
Amal and Hizbullah held “the instigators” responsible, describing them as “parties hiding behind the blood of the victims and martyrs of the port in order to achieve malicious political gains.”
The two parties called on the Lebanese Army to “assume responsibility and intervene quickly to stop these criminals.”
They also called on all supporters and partisans to remain calm and not to get dragged into malicious civil strife.