The international community has expressed concern about attempts to derail the investigation into the deadly Beirut blast last year after a Hezbollah-led protest against the judge leading the inquiry turned into deadly fighting.
Unknown gunmen killed six people in Beirut on Thursday, all of them members or supporters of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, on a former frontline in Lebanon’s civil war. The violence in the capital threatened to throw the country into further chaos after two years of economic meltdown.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed “deep concern” for the fate of the investigation in a statement released on Thursday.
“France notes its deep concern over recent obstacles to the smooth unfolding of the investigation into the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, and the violence that has taken place in that regard,” he said.
Mr Le Drian said the Lebanese judiciary system must be able to work independently and impartially on this investigation “without obstacles and with the full support of the Lebanese authorities”.
For the past week, Hezbollah and its allies have been lobbying Lebanon’s newly formed government to dismiss Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, because he summoned for interrogation politicians who are close to the group.
Politicians summoned for questioning in the inquiry succeeded in removing Mr Bitar's predecessor, Fadi Sawan, in February. They are now asking the courts to dismiss Mr Bitar.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate end to the violence and stressed the need for an impartial investigation into the blast.
The UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka said that “now is the time for all sides to support judicial independence in the interest of the people”.
More than 200 people were killed, more than 6,000 injured and large areas of the capital destroyed when hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used as fertiliser, detonated at the port after being stored there for more than six years.
Thursday’s clashes coincided with a visit to Beirut by US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who called for calm and expressed support for a transparent investigation into the explosion.
“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are,” Ms Nuland said.
“A clean, impartial, independent judiciary is the guarantor of all the rights and the values that we, as democracies, hold dear and share.”
The violence also prompted concern among Gulf states. Kuwait's embassy in Lebanon asked its citizens to leave the country, while Saudi Arabia called for calm and stability.
"The kingdom hopes that peace and security will prevail in Lebanon by ending the possession and use of arms outside of state control," Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah.
The Iran-backed group has access to an arsenal of weapons and has fought alongside the Syrian army in that country's civil war.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun called for an investigation into the clashes.
The Lebanese Army said it arrested nine people “from both sides”, including a Syrian.