BEIRUT, Lebanon – Armed clashes between sectarian militias turned Beirut neighborhoods into a deadly war zone on Thursday, raising fears that violence could fill the void left by the near collapse of the Lebanese state.
Rival gunmen, chanting in favor of their leaders, hid behind cars and dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. At least six people were killed and 30 injured. Residents huddled in their homes and teachers rounded up children in school hallways and basements to protect them from gunfire.
It was one of the worst acts of violence in years to shake Beirut, deepening the sense of instability in a small country already shaken by devastating political and economic crises and inviting one to remember its civil war that ended there. more than three decades.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese currency has fallen more than 90% in value, hitting the economy and reducing the Lebanese who comfortably belonged to the middle class to poverty. The World Bank has said Lebanon’s economic collapse may rank among the world’s three worst since the mid-1800s.
Severe fuel shortages in recent months have left all of the wealthiest Lebanese struggling with prolonged power outages and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once-vaunted banking, medical and education sectors have all suffered heavy losses as professionals fled to seek livelihoods abroad.
As the country sank into deeper dysfunction, its political elite resorted to increasingly bitter internal struggles. A huge explosion in the Port of Beirut last year killed more than 200 people and revealed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of bad governance and corruption. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the economic distress and feelings of hopelessness.
Thursday’s fighting was part of the continuing fallout from the port explosion.
Two Shia Muslim parties – Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group, and the Amal movement – had staged a protest calling for the dismissal of the judge responsible for investigating the blast and determining who was responsible.
As protesters gathered, shots rang out, apparently fired by snipers at high buildings nearby, witnesses and Lebanese officials said, and protesters dispersed into side streets, where they collected weapons and joined the fray.
It was not clear Thursday night who fired the first shots.
Clashes raged in an area straddling two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that fiercely opposes Hezbollah.
After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army was deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained at home, terrified of further violence. For many residents of Beirut, the gunshots echoing through the streets were reminiscent of the worst days of the civil war, which ravaged the once elegant city for 15 years.
“We were in the bathroom for hours, the safest part of the house,” said Leena Haddad, who lives nearby and stopped her daughter from taking pictures out the window for fear that she would. get shot.
“I have lived through civil war in the past,” Ms. Haddad said. “I know what civil war means.
Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese Forces of having started the shooting and, in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused anonymous forces of attempting “to drag the country into a deliberate conflict”.
Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea condemned the violence in Twitter posts, claiming that the clashes were caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens anytime and anywhere,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.
His group accused Hezbollah of exploiting sectarian tensions to derail the port investigation for fear that he was involved.
“Hezbollah must be taught a lesson now that it cannot desecrate the whole country, its institutions, its people and its dignity, in order to prevent anyone from expressing their opinion or performing their duties,” said Antoine Zahra, member of the Lebanese Forces executive. board of directors, said in a statement.
The Lebanese army said it had arrested nine people on both sides, including a Syrian.
At nightfall, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, gave a televised speech calling for calm, condemning the gunmen who shot at the protesters and promising that they would be brought to justice. “Our country needs a calm dialogue, calm solutions and respect for our institutions”, he declared.
Aoun also said that the investigation into the explosion at the port would continue, putting him at odds with the leaders of the protest.
Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, various Christian denominations and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain define the country’s policy and often degenerated into violence, most catastrophic during the civil war, which ended in 1990.
Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are the most important groups in Lebanon, but Hezbollah, which the United States and neighboring Israel consider a terrorist organization, has become the most powerful political and military force in the country. Supported by Iran, Hezbollah has an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel and thousands of fighters who have been sent to the battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Fighting erupted on Thursday just a month after billionaire telecommunications mogul Najib Mikati became prime minister, taking the reins for the third time in a country that had not had a fully empowered government for more than a year. .
Calling for a day of mourning on Friday, Mikati ordered all government buildings and schools closed for the day.
Mr Mikati replaced former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who, along with his cabinet, resigned after the port explosion.
It had been hoped that Mikati would bring some stability as his new government took shape. But at the same time, tensions around the port investigation intensified.
The explosion at the port was caused by the sudden combustion of some 2,750 tonnes of volatile chemicals that had been dumped at the port years before, but over a year later no one was held responsible.
The judge investigating the explosion, Tarek Bitar, has decided to summon a series of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning, which could lead to criminal charges against them.
Hezbollah has increasingly spoken out in its criticism of Judge Bitar, and its investigation was suspended this week after two indicted former ministers filed a complaint against him.
Families of the victims condemned the move, with critics saying the country’s political leaders were trying to shirk responsibility for the biggest explosion in the country’s turbulent history.
On Monday, the judge issued an arrest warrant against Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shiite member of parliament and close advisor to the leader of the Amal party. The warrant laid serious charges against Mr. Khalil.
“The nature of the offense”, the document reads, is “murder, injury, arson and vandalism connected with probable intent.”
On Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made some of his harshest criticisms of Judge Bitar, accusing him of “political targeting” of officials in his investigation and calling for a protest on Thursday.
When Hezbollah supporters joined protests to demand the judge’s impeachment, witnesses said, sniper fire rang out.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut and Marc Santora from London. Reporting was provided by Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, and Vivian Yee and Mona el-Naggar from Cairo.