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Several people killed at protest held by Hezbollah supporters in Beirut

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tensions that had been building for months in Lebanon erupted in violence today in the capital of Beirut. Authorities say at least six people were killed and dozens more wounded at a protest led by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and an allied party. They were protesting the course of an investigation into last year's massive explosion at the Beirut port. It's unclear how the shooting started. Reporter Nada Homsi was at these protests and joins us now from Beirut. Hi, Nada.

NADA HOMSI, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: All right. Can you just tell us, what did you see out there today at the protests?

HOMSI: I saw hundreds of Amal and Hezbollah supporters. These are the two main Shia political parties. And they were gathered in a very populated area of the city, right on the divide between the Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. By the time I got there, this protest had escalated into armed clashes, and I heard barrages of gunfire and rocket launchers. And then I saw men running past me, carrying Kalashnikovs. Panicked families were evacuating while the Lebanese army shut down the streets.

It's not really known how these clashes started. Hezbollah and Amal's leadership said that they were retaliating against gunfire from the Lebanese forces, which is a Christian militia here, but that militia has denied that they ever opened fire on demonstrators.

I spoke with one Hezbollah supporter, Ali Zghir, and here I am asking him about the port investigation and why he's there. Just a warning that the sound of gunshots is really apparent in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE PASSING)

HOMSI: (Non-English language spoken).

ALI ZGHIR: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

HOMSI: He also says that they came to protest the investigation peacefully. But from the amount of weapons I saw, it was clear at least some of them had come heavily armed and pretty ready to retaliate.

CHANG: And as we mentioned, the issue leading up to all of this is the investigation of the port explosion last year. Can you just remind us what happened last year? And what have investigators found?

HOMSI: Yeah. The Beirut port explosion last year killed over 200 people and destroyed a good chunk of the capital. And it was caused by hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were stored in a warehouse for years. An investigation by various rights groups found that many of Lebanon's top leaders had already been warned about it, but failed to do anything about it. Now, the formal investigation is ongoing. Hezbollah says that the investigation is biased against them. So that's what the protest, which turned into these armed clashes, was initially about.

CHANG: Well, Lebanon, of course, fought a civil war for 15 years beginning in the 1970s. Are people worried now that there could be another civil war ahead?

HOMSI: Yeah, absolutely. The country is divided into sectarian factions - Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druze. And all of those sectarian factions have militias. So the country has maintained a very delicate peace following the end of the war. I spoke with Aya Majzoub, who is a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, and this is what she had to say.

AYA MAJZOUB: Lebanon's political parties are doing what they do best. They are stirring sectarian strife in the aim of ultimately imposing their will by force.

CHANG: Well, then, what are officials doing now to try to calm things down?

HOMSI: In a televised speech, Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, vowed that people responsible for today's clashes were going to be held accountable and promised an investigation into today's clashes. He also said that it was unacceptable that weapons are once more being used as the primary means of communication among rival Lebanese factions. And the United States State Department has also called for calm. But Hezbollah, which is a paramilitary and the strongest militia in Lebanon, is really the most powerful player here, so people are just waiting to see what they're going to do next. Right now it really remains to be seen whether these armed clashes are going to continue to escalate in the future.

CHANG: That is Nada Homsi in Beirut. Thank you very much, Nada.

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


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