BEIRUT, Lebanon — Armed clashes between sectarian militias turned Beirut’s 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, who supported 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 herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.
It was one of the worst acts of violence in years to convulse Beirut, exacerbating the sense of instability in a small country already ravaged by devastating political and economic crises and recalling the civil war that ended more than three decades ago.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese currency has plunged in value by more than 90 percent, hurting the economy and pushing Lebanese, who were comfortably middle class, into poverty. The World Bank has said Lebanon’s economic collapse could be among the three worst in the world since the mid-19th century.
A severe fuel shortage in recent months has left all but the richest 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 major losses as professionals have fled to earn a living abroad.
As the country plunges into ever-deeper dysfunction, its political elite has resorted to an increasingly bitter power struggle. A massive explosion in the port of Beirut last year killed more than 200 people, exposing the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of bad governance and corruption. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated economic distress and a sense of despair.
Thursday’s fighting was part of the ongoing fallout from the harbor explosion.
Two Shia Muslim parties – Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, and the Amal movement – had staged a protest calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the explosion and determining who was responsible.
As the protesters gathered, shots were heard, apparently fired by snipers into nearby tall buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters spread to side streets, where they picked up weapons and rejoined the fray.
It was unclear late Thursday evening who fired the first shots.
The clashes raged in an area spanning two neighborhoods, one Shia and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Armed Forces, a Christian political party that fervently opposes Hezbollah.
After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army was deployed to calm the streets and the clashes seemed to calm down, but residents remained in their homes, terrified of the possibility of further violence. For many Beirut residents, gunfire in the streets was a reminder of the worst days of the civil war, which ravaged the once elegant city for 15 years.
“We stayed in the bathroom for hours, the safest part of the house,” said Leena Haddad, who lives nearby and prevented her daughter from taking pictures from the window for fear of being shot.
“I’ve been through the civil war in the past,” Ms. Haddad said. “I know what civil war means.”
Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese forces of starting the shooting, and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal movement accused unnamed troops of trying to “drag the country into a deliberate struggle”.
The head of the Lebanese armed forces, Samir Geagea, condemned the violence in posts on Twitter, and said the clashes were caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten civilians in every time and place,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.
His group accused Hezbollah of exploiting sectarian tensions to derail the port investigation over fears it could be involved.
“Hezbollah must be taught a lesson now that it cannot desecrate the entire country, its institutions, people and dignity, to prevent anyone from expressing its opinion or carrying out its duties,” Antoine Zahra, a member of the executive branch of the Lebanese Armed Forces board, said in a statement.
The Lebanese army said it had arrested nine people from both sides, including a Syrian.
As night fell, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, delivered a televised speech calling for calm, condemning gunmen who shot at protesters and promising that they would be brought to justice. “Our country needs calm dialogue and calm solutions and respect for our institutions,” he said.
Mr Aoun also said the investigation into the explosion in the harbor would continue, which would put him at odds with protest leaders.
Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, various denominations of Christians, and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain shape the country’s politics and have often turned into violence, most catastrophically during the civil war, which ended in 1990.
The Sunnis, Shias and Christians are the largest groups in Lebanon, but Hezbollah, which the United States and neighboring Israel considers a terrorist organization, has emerged as the country’s most powerful political and military force. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah wields an arsenal of more than 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel and thousands of fighters sent to battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
The fighting on Thursday broke out just a month after Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications mogul, became prime minister and took the reins for the third time in a country that had not had a fully empowered government for more than a year.
Mikati called for a day of mourning on Friday and ordered all government offices and schools to be closed for that day.
Mikati replaced the former Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, who resigned along with his cabinet after the port explosion.
There had been hopes that Mr Mikati would bring some stability as his new government took shape. At the same time, however, tensions over the port investigation increased.
The explosion in the harbor was caused by the sudden incineration of some 2,750 tons of volatile chemicals unloaded into the harbor years earlier, but no one has been held responsible more than a year later.
The judge investigating the explosion, Tarek Bitar, has decided to summon a range of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning, which could lead to criminal charges against them.
Hezbollah has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Judge Bitar, and his investigation was suspended this week after two former ministers indicted filed a legal complaint against him.
Families of the victims condemned the move, while critics said the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from responsibility for the biggest explosion in the country’s turbulent history.
On Monday, the judge had issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hussein Khalil, a prominent Shia MP and close adviser to the leader of the Amal party. The arrest warrant contained serious charges against Mr Khalil.
“The nature of the crime,” the document said, is “killing, causing damage, arson and vandalism in connection with probable intent.”
On Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah expressed some of his most scathing criticisms of Judge Bitar, accusing him of “political attacks” on officials in his investigation and calling for a protest on Thursday.
When Hezbollah supporters joined the protests to call for the judge’s removal, sniper shots were heard, according to witnesses.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Marc Santora from London. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut, and Vivian Yee and Mona el-Naggar from Cairo.