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Dozens injured in deadly Beirut clashes sparked by protests over blast probe

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Fighting erupted in a heavily populated area in Beirut today during a protest by Hezbollah supporters. They say they were attacked by Christian militias nearby. But the facts are still unclear. Officials say at least five people were killed and dozens wounded. It comes against a backdrop of widespread power outages and government paralysis in Lebanon and as the country is still investigating the massive explosion at the Beirut port last year, which was the subject of the protest.

Reporter Nada Homsi was there at the protest in Beirut. She's on the line with us now. First off, what was this protest about, and who was protesting?

NADA HOMSI, BYLINE: So this protest was with Hezbollah and Amal. They are two Shiite political parties who have their own militias. And they were protesting over what they say is an unfair investigation into the Beirut port explosion, which happened in the year 2020, last year. In recent weeks, they've been pressuring a lot for the removal of the judge that's in charge with leading the investigation. And in fact, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has called for him to be replaced and accused him of political bias in that investigation.

MARTINEZ: Remind us about the explosion at the port last year and how that occurred.

HOMSI: Yes. So that massive explosion was in - that is at the heart of this conflict was caused by hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate. That chemical substance was unsafely stored in a warehouse in the Beirut port - in the middle of the city, essentially. And over 200 people were killed in that explosion. And swaths of the capital were destroyed. An investigation by Human Rights Watch says - found that overwhelming evidence pointed to senior Lebanese officials having had prior knowledge to the ammonium nitrate that was stored, but that they failed to do anything about it.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. That was amazing footage, to see that explosion. Now, we know the details about what happened, they are still unclear. But what did you see where you were?

HOMSI: There were hundreds of people gathered near the judiciary. And I heard so many gunshots ringing out. And then I saw men running past me carrying rocket launchers and Kalashnikov rifles near the Palace of Justice, which is in the middle of the city. And the sound of gunfire was blanketing the entire area. Families were evacuating, piling into cars to leave their neighborhoods, just - because the neighborhood just so happens to be a sectarian hot spot where the civil war erupted back in 1975.

One man was even injured and collapsed on the ground in front of me as civil defense workers were trying to get to him to treat him. Now, supporters of Hezbollah and Amal say they came to peacefully protest against the politicization of the investigation into this explosion. But one supporter I spoke to said that Christian militias in the area opened fire on them, forcing Hezbollah, which is the most heavily armed militia in Lebanon, to retaliate.

MARTINEZ: Have things calmed down at all? And what should we be looking for going forward?

HOMSI: Yes, things seem to have quieted for the time being. But we don't know if these clashes are going to resume. There's a big concern among Lebanese people that this investigation isn't going to lead to anything. Already, multiple officials have refused to even appear for questioning before the judge that's investigating the blast. And the investigation has already been stalled twice.

And there's also a very real fear that this will lead to further sectarian clashes like those that sparked the civil war back in 1975. That civil war lasted for 15 years and was fought by various sectarian factions. Like I said, there's a brief lapse in fighting now. But we don't know if it's going to erupt again. And, of course, this is all happening in the background of this huge economic collapse in Lebanon. It's actually one of the worst in the world. The Lebanese currency has plummeted. And the crisis has caused there to be fuel shortages, power shortages, medicine shortages. And people are really on edge, just waiting to see what's going to happen next.

MARTINEZ: That's reporter Nada Homsi in Beirut. Thank you very much.

HOMSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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