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A protest in Beirut turned violent, killing 6 and injuring dozens more

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What led to violence in Beirut on Thursday that killed at least six people? A protest in Lebanon's capital ended in gunfire, which went on for hours. And a day of mourning has been announced in Lebanon for today. The militant and political group Hezbollah had called that protest to demand the removal of a judge who was investigating Hezbollah's political allies. Sarah El Deeb is a correspondent with The Associated Press in Beirut and is going to talk us through this. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH EL DEEB: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Or perhaps good afternoon, actually, where you are today. Thank you for joining us. Really appreciate it. Somehow, this protest was connected with a giant explosion that killed many people at a port in Beirut last year. What is the connection?

EL DEEB: Sadly and ironically, the investigation into that massive explosion that killed over 200 people and wounded thousands and devastated the capital, Beirut, last summer in August 2020 has been going on for over a year. And the judge now doing the investigation has been summoning senior officials and senior security officials to do his job, to investigate what happened, something that has been in the port - explosive material that were in the Port of Beirut for over seven years. But just like his predecessor - and his predecessor was removed - he's been met with a lot of obstruction from senior politicians, political groups and people who are very unhappy with the fact that they have to answer to the law. In Lebanon, there's a lot of history of immunity and lack of accountability - lots of violence went unanswered and corruption, as well.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that resistance, then, to the investigation was translated into protest, I suppose. Is that right?

EL DEEB: It was translated into everything. So there was - originally, they were legal challenges. They took the judge to court. They tried to recuse him. They tried to remove him from the case. They did successfully with the previous judge. But then with this one, it hasn't worked so far. So the last gambit or the last move was a street protest. And when one of the most powerful groups in the country, Hezbollah, and its allies call for a protest, that's something that makes people stop. And it's a cause for concern. So there was a protest yesterday. And we knew that this was a very, very strong message, and it was a sign of bad - ill fate for the investigation. This is - they're not very happy with the way it's going, and they're going to pool whatever is possible. But we did not foresee the violence that happened yesterday.

INSKEEP: Who opened fire, if it's known? And what was it like on the streets during the gunfire?

EL DEEB: That's a really good question, I think. We don't really have the answer for who opened fire first. But there, of course, every - this is a very divisive situation, and every side blames the other. So this was a predominantly Christian neighborhood that is across the street from another Shiite Muslim neighborhood. And the protesters by Hezbollah and Amal claim that they came under fire; they were ambushed by people from rooftops.

What we know is that there definitely were snipers on the rooftops. What we don't know is how the clashes began. But there was a lot of guns on the streets, not just on the snipers' side. There were also guns on the street level, on the Hezbollah and Amal side. They had a lot of guns. So they didn't - they were not surprised by the snipers on the - they were definitely surprised, but they were prepared. That's what I mean. So there was lots of exchange of fire.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, this must have been a terrifying few hours.

EL DEEB: It was really very unexpected, very shocking. And I think what happened is that people just relived - we slid back in history. We slid back in time. People had to see RPGs on the street, machine guns, snipers from rooftops. I just came from the area now, and there is a huge army deployment. So you can imagine just how precarious the calm is right now.

INSKEEP: Slipped back in time because Lebanon not so long ago had a many-years-long civil war. Sara El Deeb of The Associated Press, thank you so much.

EL DEEB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.