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By ZEINA KARAM and SARAH EL DEEB
BEIRUT (AP) — Heavy gunfire broke out Thursday in Beirut during a protest organized by the Hezbollah group against the judge leading the probe into last year’s blast in the city’s port. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded in the most violent street fighting in the Lebanese capital in years.
The exchanges of fire along a former front line from the 1975-90 civil war involved pistols, automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and were reminiscent of that conflict. Gunfire echoed for hours, and ambulances rushed to pick up casualties. Snipers shot from buildings. Bullets penetrated apartment windows in the area. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
The chaos raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already embroiled in multiple crises, including one of the world’s worst economic crises of the past 150 years.
It was not clear who started the shooting, which began shortly after the start of the protest organized by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into last year’s massive port explosion. Hezbollah and its allies accuse the judge of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah.
Tensions over the port blast have contributed to Lebanon’s many troubles, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, soaring poverty and an energy crisis leading to extended electricity blackouts.
Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by charging and summoning some officials and not others. They want him removed.
None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.
The probe centers on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were improperly stored at a port warehouse that detonated on Aug. 4, 2020. The blast killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated the country already beset with political divisions and financial woes.
Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation. His predecessor was removed following legal challenges.
On Thursday, shortly before the planned protest, an appeals court turned down a request to remove Bitar from his post filed by two lawmakers who are defendants in the case, both of them allies of Hezbollah.
The calls for the judge’s removal upset many who considered it blatant interference in the work of the judiciary.
The right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces mobilized supporters Wednesday evening after Hezbollah and Amal called for the protest at the Justice Palace, located on the former front line separating predominantly Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut. Videos circulating on social media Wednesday night showed supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces marching in the streets, carrying large crosses.
In a statement Thursday, the two Shiite groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed over rooftops. Among the dead — all Shiites — were two Hezbollah members.
The army also said protesters came under fire, but later in the evening said an “altercation and exchange of fire” occurred as the protesters were headed to the Justice Palace.
The violence unfolded while U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town, meeting with Lebanese officials. Her schedule was slightly thrown off by the action on the streets.
Nuland later told an airport news conference that an impartial judiciary is the guarantor of all rights, in apparent criticism of Hezbollah. “The Lebanese people deserve no less, and the victims and the families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” she said. “Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are.”
As the clashes erupted, an Associated Press journalist saw a man open fire with a pistol and gunmen shooting in the direction of protesters from a balcony. Several men fell immediately and bled on the street. The army sent patrols to the area following the gunfire between the Muslim and Christian sides of the capital.
The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 30 people were wounded. One of the dead, a mother of five, was shot in the head. Hezbollah said it planned a funeral for the woman, and two of its fighters, for Friday. Amal, which is headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, planned a separate a funeral for two of its members.
Four projectiles fell near a private French school, Freres of Furn el Chebbak, causing panic. In scenes reminiscent of the civil war, students huddled in the central corridors. Smoke covered the neighborhoods that saw relentless gunfire.
The shooting subsided around four hours later, after army troops were deployed.
Youssef Diab, a journalist who specializes in court affairs, said the protest was meant as a show of force and a message that Hezbollah and Amal control the street. What happened showed them that they are not the only ones who control the street.
“There is another street, and confronting it could blow up the situation in a big way,” Diab said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed for calm and urged people “not to be dragged into civil strife.”
Beirut resident Haneen Chemaly, who heads a local group that provides social services, hid with her 6-month-old baby in her building’s shelter and then at her neighbors’ home. She accused Lebanon’s leaders of steering the country into civil war, saying it’s “the last card they have to use.”
“They have (driven) us into bankruptcy, devastation and now they are scaring us with the specter of civil war,” she said.
Michel Younan, a resident of Ain el-Remeneh neighborhood, inspected his car, which had its windows and doors broken in the fighting. “There were protests and then suddenly gunfire began … Shooting, RPGs, everything,” he said. “Isn’t this a shame? They brought us back to the days of the war.”
The clashes could derail Mikati’s month-old government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s economic meltdown.
A cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. One Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other Shiite cabinet members would stage a walkout if Bitar isn’t removed, further complicating Mikati’s mission.
Associated Press journalists Hassan Ammar and Fadi Tawil contributed to this report.
ST. LOUIS – There is still confusion over whether a mask mandate continues to exist in St. Louis County.
That after no final rulings were made this morning by the Judge overseeing the controversial St. Louis County mask mandate court case.
Judge Ellen “Nellie” Ribaudo held about a half-hour hearing with lawyers for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and attorneys for St. Louis County.
A key issue in the hearing was the impact of a ruling last week by Cole County Judge Daniel Green that bars local governing bodies from imposing COVID-19 health orders like mask mandates.
We’re told the ruling does not officially go into effect until later in December.
An attorney for St. Louis County, Neal Perryman, said county officials are still working through the ruling.
Perryman conceded that county officials took the masking order off the county website following the ruling by Judge Green and that the St. Louis County masking order could now be moot.
But Perryman would not go so far as to say that a mask mandate no longer exists in St. Louis County.
An attorney for Missouri Attorney General’s office, Jeff Johnson, argued it’s not enough that the order was taken down from the website because St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page said just yesterday that the mask mandate was still in effect in St. Louis County.
A spokesperson for AG Schmitt says Schmitt wants a preliminary injunction officially ending the second St. Louis County mask mandate announced by County Executive Dr. Sam Page back in September.
Officials with the AG’s office have filed a lawsuit contending the mandate is illegal under state law.
Judge Ribaudo set another meeting for December 9th so that attorneys on both sides could meet and try to work out the various issues that are still outstanding.
Meanwhile, the latest COVID numbers from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force show local cases rising again.
The seven-day moving average of hospital admissions is at 48. The Task Force wants that number below 40.
The total number of COVID patients hospitalized is nearly 400. Earlier this month there were just above 250. 82 confirmed COVID patients are now in ICUs.
Less than three weeks ago that number was 53. And there are now 52 confirmed COVID patients on ventilators. Two weeks ago there were just 32.
Tragically 10 more people died from COVID in the latest numbers.
That has pushed our region into double-digit COVID deaths in a single day for the first time in more than two months.
The Pandemic Task Force is expected to address the latest COVID developments later today.
The mask mandate controversy is also on the agenda for tonight’s St. Louis County Council meeting.
The Ravens’ Week 15 home game against the Green Bay Packers has been pushed back to a 4:25 p.m. kickoff, the NFL announced Tuesday. Fox’s telecast of the game had been scheduled to start at 1 p.m. on Dec. 19.
The NFL uses “flexible scheduling” in Weeks 11-18, meaning that, after consultation with its broadcast partners, it can move games into prime-time or late-afternoon slots. The announcements are made no later than 12 days before the game.
The Ravens are 3-0 against NFC North teams this season, edging the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, but Green Bay should be the division’s stiffest test. The 9-3 Packers, led by reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers, have the NFC’s second-best record. On Sunday, they knocked off the Los Angeles Rams, 36-28, in Green Bay.
The Ravens’ Week 15 game will be second of three late-afternoon kickoffs in a five-week span. On Sunday and in Week 17, they face the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams at 4:25 p.m.
The city of Denver has quietly stepped up its efforts to prevent encampments of homeless people from forming in one downtown neighborhood while also working to provide city land for a sanctioned camping site a few miles away.
City crews are now clearing unhoused people and their belongings from sidewalks and other public rights of way at least three times a week in a roughly 10-block area in the Five Points neighborhood, officials said.
“Permanent, regular cleanups are needed in this area to consistently promote the health and safety of everyone in the area, including those experiencing homelessness … ” Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said in an emailed statement.
The area identified by officials in late September is bounded by Broadway, Park Avenue, Welton and 20th streets. It’s dotted with signs that mark it a permanent zone for what opponents to the camping ban refer to as sweeps. The permanent cleanup zone was first reported by Westword.
Kuhn said the cleanup actions make the sidewalk accessible so people don’t have to walk in the street and help to mitigate public health risks created by trash, decomposing food, discarded needles, human waste and flammable materials such as propane and gasoline.
Unlike in most encampments cleanups, the city does not provide notice to people camping in the area seven days in advance. The notice rule was established by a federal injunction earlier this year.
“It’s an attempted end-run around the requirements of the preliminary injunction,” Andy McNulty, the attorney who filed the federal lawsuit against the city’s camping ban, said last week. “They are putting up a zone that essentially says you can’t exist here if you’re an unhoused person.”
McNulty and Assistant City Attorney Conor Farley delivered arguments in a hearing with a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit last week about the merits of the preliminary injunction. The city’s goal was to have the restrictions on its camping ban enforcement powers lifted.
Farley noted in his comments there is a process through which the city can speed up enforcement actions to a 48-hour timetable if an emergency public health risk exists in an encampment but said that is still not soon enough. He also acknowledged the public record is thin on examples of public health emergencies that require a speedier response.
A representative for the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the arguments which are still being considered by the judges on the panel. McNulty said the hearing was a demonstration that the city has been disingenuous about its motives for clearing encampments.
“They just want the power to do whatever they want whenever they want with no consequences and they are not happy that someone is actually holding them accountable for once,” he said.
The permanent cleanup area the city marked out in September is the second of its kind, Kuhn said. Another area, roughly outlined by Larimer, Arapahoe, 22nd and 24th streets, is also subject to regular enforcement, she said.
In her emailed statement, Kuhn encouraged people who are homeless to embrace the city services available to them rather than stay on the streets.
“Our shelters have capacity; they are open 24/7, many do not require sobriety, they are safe and clean, and provide essential services to exit homelessness, including case management and rehousing,” she wrote.
Kuhn emailed The Denver Post her statement before a Denver Rescue Mission employee was fatally stabbed at the organization’s shelter for men at 4600 E. 48th Ave. Saturday night.
The potential for violent episodes is just one thing that can keep unhoused people from using the city’s shelter network. Cathy Alderman, chief public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, noted that sleeping in a large, open room with other people is not ideal for everyone and the environment can be triggering for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The coalition has offices in the permanent cleanup area in Five Points. The enforcement doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer people on the street, but that those people who would otherwise have been near the coalition offices and the offices of other service providers in the area are now more spread out.
“We don’t support the enforcement of the camping ban. We think it’s wildly unproductive,” Alderman said, “but at the same time encampments do sometimes bring safety issues with them.”
The city’s crackdown on camping in that corner of Five Points comes at a time when city officials also shepherding through approval for a sanctioned homeless camping site, known as a “safe outdoor space,” on the east Denver campus of the city’s department of human services.
The site, at 3815 Steele St. in the Clayton neighborhood, will be the first safe outdoor space on a city-owned property when it opens next month. The site will replace another space on the campus of a Park Hill church that is set to close at the end of the year.
The Clayton space will have 41 tents equipped with electricity and capable of hosting up to 50 people, according to the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit the city has contracted to operate the sites. The city will lease the land to the collaborative for $10 for the first year, with two six-month extension options.
The City Council voted to approve the lease agreement on Monday night. Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who represents District 5 on the city’s east side, was the lone no vote. She has consistently opposed the city spending any money on safe outdoor spaces.
The site operators are optimistic about what the Clayton site means for the future of their model.
“I am excited to see the city stepping up in that way and making public land available for that purpose,” Cole Chandler, Colorado Village Collaborative’s executive director, said. “We think that’s indicative of really the public conversation around these sites shifting.”
The nonprofit was awarded an $899,000 contract to operate the improved camping sites this year and as of earlier this month had served more than 120 households that were previously unsheltered and living on the streets, Chandler said.
Colorado Village Collaborative opened a safe site near Denver Health Medical Center in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood today, Chandler said. By the end of the year, the nonprofit will have three sites with aims to open a fourth in early 2022. The city and the organization are negotiating a contract for next year that could further expand the network.
In a committee hearing about the Clayton site earlier this month, City Councilman Chris Hinds noted that his District 10 hosted the first two temporary safe outdoor spaces this year and neighbors went from sending him emails opposing them to embracing them as safer alternatives to encampments.
“This is a transformative model,” he said. “It has had an incredible amount of success.”
November’s election results also give Chandler hope, he said. Not only did voters reject Initiated Ordinance 303, which would have made the camping ban more strict, they also supported preserving the group living amendment intended to keep housing costs down in the city.
Denver’s Department of Housing Stability recently earned council approval for its 5-year strategic plan and projects having more than $270.6 million to spend next year including $40.9 million from the homelessness resolution fund voters approved in 2020. Almost 50% of that budget is earmarked for homelessness resolution efforts.
Alderman said that providing more safe outdoor spaces is a positive step, providing an alternative between camping ban enforcement and shelters. But, like the existing shelter system, those are only short-term solutions.
“The city is making investments in housing and homeless at a scale that it never has before and that is a good thing,” Alderman said. “Unfortunately, we are in a pretty big crisis so it’s going to take a while for those dollars to have the intended impact.”
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