Schools, banks and government offices across Lebanon have remained closed after hours of shootings between heavily armed militias killed six people and terrorized residents of Beirut.
The government has called for a day of mourning after the armed clashes, in which armed men used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades on the streets of the capital, echoing the country’s darkest time of the year. 1975-90 civil war.
The gunfire has raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already struggling with one of the worst global economic crises in the past 150 years.
Violence erupted Thursday during a protest organized by the two main Shiite parties – Hezbollah and the Amal movement – calling for the impeachment of the senior judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in the port of Beirut.
Many demonstrators were armed. It was not clear who fired the first shot, but the confrontation quickly evolved into a violent exchange of gunfire along a former civil war frontline separating the predominantly Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut. .
Gunshots rang out for hours and ambulances rushed to pick up the injured. Snipers fired from buildings, bullets entered the windows of neighborhood apartments, schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
Both Shiite groups said their protesters came under fire from rooftop snipers, accusing the right-wing Christian militia of the Lebanese Forces of having started the shooting. Among the dead – all Shiites – were two Hezbollah fighters.
On Friday, residents of Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood, where most of the fighting took place, swept glass from the streets in front of shops and apartment buildings.
Soldiers guarded the entrance to the battered neighborhood and barbed wire was erected at the entrances to the streets. Many cars were damaged.
Tayouneh has a huge roundabout that separates the Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. Newly pockmarked buildings sat next to those marked by civil war.
Tensions over the port explosion contributed to Lebanon’s many problems, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, growing poverty and an energy crisis resulting in prolonged blackouts.
The probe focuses on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that were improperly stored in a port warehouse that exploded on August 4, 2020.
The explosion killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of neighboring neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated a country already plagued by political divisions and financial difficulties.
Judge Tarek Bitar has indicted and issued an arrest warrant against the former Lebanese finance minister, who is a senior official in the Amal movement and a close ally of Hezbollah.
Judge Bitar also indicted three other former senior government officials with willful murder and negligence which led to the explosion.
Officials from the two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Judge Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by indicting and summoning some officials and not others.
None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.
Judge Bitar is the second judge to conduct the complicated investigation. His predecessor was removed from his post following legal challenges.