BEIRUT (AP) — The families of the victims of last year's massive Beirut port blast reaffirmed their support Saturday for the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, despite increasing calls for his ouster by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies.
The families' statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media late Friday in which he calls on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down.
The spokesman, Ibrahim Hoteit, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if he had made the video under pressure. The families said he had not coordinated with them, as is customary, and that the video took them by surprise.
Since the August 2020 explosion, which killed at least 215 people, the families of the victims have taken on an increasingly prominent role in Lebanon with their demands for accountability. After the blast, it emerged from documents that several senior politicians and security chiefs had known about the hundreds of tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate stored haphazardly in a port warehouse and had done nothing about it.
On Thursday, gunbattles erupted on Beirut streets between two camps opposing and supporting the judge in the probe. Seven people were killed and dozens wounded.
The violence broke out at a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allied Amal Movement, which have called for Bitar’s removal. The two groups have suggested the investigation is heading toward holding them responsible for the blast.
“We, the families of more than 200 martyrs and thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of people who suffered damages, have put our faith in investigative judge Tarek Bitar,” the families said.
The statement was issued after the families' spokesman demanded in a video that the judge step down because “the situation has turned into shedding of the blood of innocent people," a reference to Thursday’s violence. The spokesman's younger brother was killed in the port explosion.
Judge Bitar has charged and issued arrest warrants for Lebanon’s former ministers of finance and public works, both close allies of Hezbollah. Bitar has charged the two, along with another former minister and prime minister, with intentional killing and negligence that led to the blast.