Heavy gunfire broke out in Beirut’s streets on Thursday after protests escalated into violent clashes in the morning that killed at least five people and injured 30 others, according to authorities and footage from the scene.
The clashes erupted amid protests aimed at stopping a judge investigating a huge blast in the port of Beirut last year and exposed deep sectarian tensions, exacerbated by the acute economic crisis and the imminent collapse of the Lebanese state.
Witnesses said that they first fired snipers from tall buildings, and then clashes with machine guns in the nearby streets followed. As medics rushed to evacuate the dead and wounded, residents huddled in their homes, fearing that these events could trigger a new round of violence in a country with a long history of civil unrest.
“The environment around us is still very tense,” Joseph Musalem, a security guard at a school near the site of the clashes, said by phone. When the clashes broke out, school staff threw the children into the basement for protection, and some parents were able to rush to pick them up. The others were still waiting in the basement for peace.
“Hopefully the shooting will subside and we can move and get home,” said Mr. Musalem.
The Lebanese military tried to calm the streets by responding to reports of snipers hiding on rooftops and conducting firefights. Fires broke out and smoke rose into the sky over the capital.
Tensions are escalating in Beirut over the ongoing investigation into a port bombing that killed more than 200 people and caused extensive damage to the Lebanese capital. The small Mediterranean country is also experiencing a financial crash that the World Bank says could be one of the worst in the world since the mid-1800s.
Violence has erupted in an area located on the border between two areas of long-standing controversy: one is a stronghold for Shia Muslims and the other is for Christians.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm as the army called on civilians to leave the area, warning that soldiers would shoot anyone who opened fire.
The protests were spearheaded by Shiite political parties, including Hezbollah, a militant group backed by Iran to secure the removal of a judge investigating the Beirut bombing.
In a statement, Hezbollah and another Shiite political party, the Amal Movement, accused unnamed parties of opening fire on peaceful demonstrators in an attempt to “drag the country into a deliberate struggle.”
As children huddled under desks in classrooms near the clashes and families huddled in their homes, there were also reports of bank raids as people desperately tried to collect their money.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, with annual inflation at 84.9 percent last year. As of June, prices for many consumer goods have nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.
A huge explosion last summer in the port of Beirut, leaving much of the capital in ruins, only exacerbated the despair.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country still plagued by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is experiencing a financial collapse that the World Bank says could be one of the worst in the world since the mid-1800s.
It closes like a vise for families whose money has plummeted while the value of almost everything has skyrocketed.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, with annual inflation at 84.9 percent in 2020. As of June, consumer prices have nearly quadrupled over the previous two years, according to government statistics.
A huge explosion a year ago in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and left much of the capital in ruins, only exacerbated the despair.
The explosion exacerbated the long-standing economic crisis in the country, and no relief is foreseen.
Years of corruption and bad policies have left the state mired in debt and the central bank unable to support the currency as it has for decades due to falling foreign cash flows into the country. Now the bottom of the economy has fallen, leaving a shortage of food, fuel and medicine.
All but the richest Lebanese have cut meat from their diets and stand in long lines to refuel their cars, sweating on hot summer nights due to prolonged power outages.