BEIRUT, Lebanon — Armed conflict between sectarian militias turned the Beirut neighborhood 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, raising slogans in support 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 were injured. Residents lurked in their homes, and teachers flocked to the hallways and basements of schools to protect children from the shootings.
It was the worst violence in years to crush Beirut, adding to a sense of instability in a small country already suffering from devastating political and economic crises and inviting memories of its civil war that ended more than three decades ago. Was getting it done.
Since the fall of 2019, Lebanon’s currency has fallen more than 90 percent in value, battering the economy and plunging Lebanese who were comfortably middle class into poverty. The World Bank has said that Lebanon’s economic collapse could rank among the world’s three worst since the mid-1800s.
Severe fuel shortages in recent months have left the wealthiest Lebanese battling prolonged power blackouts and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once infamous banking, medical and education sectors have suffered deep losses, as professionals have fled in search of livelihoods abroad.
As the country continues to plunge into deep trouble, its political elite has increasingly resorted to bitter infighting. Last year a major explosion in the port of Beirut killed more than 200 people and what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption. The Covid-19 pandemic has only added to the feeling of economic distress and despair.
Thursday’s fighting was part of a continuing fallout from the harbor explosion.
Two Shia Muslim parties – Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group, and the Amal movement – organized a protest calling for the removal of a judge to investigate the blast and determine who was responsible.
According to witnesses and Lebanese officials, as the protesters gathered, gunfire was heard, apparently fired by snipers, into nearby tall buildings, and the demonstrators scattered along the side streets, where they withdrew their weapons and regrouped. joined the field.
It was not clear who fired the first shot till late Thursday night.
Clashes broke out in the area of two neighbourhoods, one a Shia and the other a stronghold of Lebanese forces, a Christian political party staunchly opposed to Hezbollah.
After nearly four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army was deployed to pacify the streets and clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes, fearing the prospect of violence. For many Beirut residents, the bullets echoed in the streets recalled the worst days of the civil war that ravaged the once elegant city for 15 years.
“We stayed in the bathroom for hours, the safest part of the house,” said Lena Haddad, who lives nearby and prevented her daughter from taking pictures from the window for fear that she would be shot.
“I lived a civil war in the past,” Ms. Haddad said. “I know what civil war means.”
Hezbollah officials accused Lebanese forces of launching the shooting, and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal movement accused unnamed forces of trying to “draw the country into a deliberate conflict”.
Lebanese army chief Samir Gegea condemns violence post on twitterIn reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal, saying that the conflict was caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten civilians at all times and places”.
His group accused Hezbollah of taking advantage of sectarian tensions to derail the port’s investigation out of fear that it could be implicated.
Lebanese military executive member Antoine Zahra said, “Hezbollah must now be taught a lesson that it should defame the entire country, its institutions, people and dignity by preventing anyone from expressing their opinion or performing their duties.” does not make.” The board said in a statement.
The Lebanese army said it had arrested nine people from both sides, including a Syrian.
As the night wore on, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, made a televised address, calling for calm while condemning the gunmen who opened fire at the demonstrators and promised that they would be brought to justice. “Our country needs peaceful dialogue, peaceful resolution and respect for our institutions,” he said.
Mr Aun also said that the investigation into the explosion at the port would continue, leading to differences with leaders opposing him.
Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and various sects of Shia Muslims, Christians and others. Conflict between them and the militias they created defines the country’s politics and has often escalated into violence, most disastrously during the civil war that ended in 1990.
Sunnis, Shias and Christians are the largest groups in Lebanon, but Hezbollah, which the United States and neighboring Israel consider a terrorist organization, has emerged as the country’s most powerful political and military force. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets, pointing to thousands of fighters sent to battlefields in Israel and Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
The fighting broke out on Thursday, just a month after a billionaire telecom mogul Najib Mikati became prime minister, taking the reins for the third time in a country that has lacked a fully empowered government for more than a year.
Calling for a day of mourning on Friday, Mikati ordered all government buildings and schools to close for the day.
Mr Mikati replaces former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who along with his cabinet resigned after the port explosion.
It was expected that Mikati would bring some stability with the formation of the new government of Mikati. But at the same time, tensions over the port investigation deepened.
The explosion at the port was caused by the sudden combustion of about 2,750 tonnes of volatile chemicals that were unloaded into the port years ago, but more than a year later no one has been held accountable.
Judge Tarek Bitter, probing the blast, has summoned several powerful politicians and security officials for questioning, which could result in criminal charges against him.
Hezbollah has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Judge Bitter, and his investigation was suspended this week after two former ministers facing charges filed legal complaints against him.
The victims’ families condemned the move, with critics saying the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from accountability for the biggest explosion in the troubled country’s history.
On Monday, the judge issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shia member of parliament and a close adviser to the leader of the Amal party. The warrant made serious allegations against Mr. Khaleel.
“The nature of the crime,” the document read, “is associated with probable intent to murder, harm, arson and vandalism.”
On Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some of his sharpest criticism of Judge Bitter, accusing him of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation and calling for protests on Thursday.
When Hezbollah followers joined the protest to remove the judge, eyewitnesses said, sniper shots rang.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut and Mark Santora from London. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and Asma al-Omar from Beirut, and Vivian Yee and Mona al-Nagar from Cairo.