At least six killed in clashes in Lebanon's capital

At least six killed in clashes in Lebanon's capital

Protests led by Shiite political parties, including Hezbollah, turned violent as the groups pushed for the removal of the judge investigating the February 20th, 2020 Beirut Port explosion.

The fighting further traumatized the small Mediterranean country, a patchwork of sects that tumbled into an abyss of devastating political and economic crises.

BEIRUT - Lebanon — Armed clashes between sectarian militias transformed city halls into deadly war zones on Thursday, raising fears that violence could fill the void left by the near collapse of the Lebanese state. Rival gunmen, chanting in solidarity with their leaders, hidden behind cars and dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. At least six people were killed and 30 wounded. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the halls and basements of school to protect them from the shooting. It was some of the worst violence in years to convulse Beirut, aggravating the sense of instability in a small country already buffeted by devastating political and economic crises and inviting recollections of its civil war that ended more than three decades ago. Since the fall of 2019, Lebanon s currency has increased more than 90 percent in value, damaging the economy and freezing Lebanese that were comfortably middle class to poverty. The World Bank has said that Lebanon s economic collapse could rank among the worst in the world since the mid 1800 s.

As the nation plunged into ever deeper dysfunction, its political elite has resorted to bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year exposed more than 200 people and killed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of corruption and poor governance. The Covid pandemic has only aggravated the economic distress and sense of despair. The ongoing fallout from the port explosion was part of the fighting on Thursday. Two Shiite Muslim parties - Amal Movement, an Iran-backed militant group, and Hezbollah had organized a protest calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the blast and determining who was responsible. As the protesters collected, shotshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets where they retrieved weapons and rejoined the fray.

It was unclear who fired the first shots on Thursday night. The clashes raged in an area straddling two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah. After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army was deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside. Residents remained in their homes, terrified at the possibility of further violence. Many Beirut residents heard a gunfire echoing in the street recalling the most difficult 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 our house, said Leena Haddad, who lives nearby and kept her daughter from taking photos from the window because she fears that she would get shot. I lived in the Civil War, Ms. Haddad said. Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese forces of their role in starting the shooting and in a statement Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused unknown forces of trying to drag the country into a deliberate strife. Lebanese military chief Samir Geagea condemned the violence on Twitter, saying that the clashes had been caused by massive weapons that threaten citizens in every situation and time, making reference to Hezbollah's entire arsenal. Hezbollah accused his group of exploiting sectarian tensions to derail port investigations over fears it could be implicated.

The Syrian Army said that it had arrested nine people from both sides, including a Lebanese army. As night fell, the country s President, Michel Aoun, gave a televised address calling for calm, condemning gunmen who fired at protesters and promising they would be brought to justice. Our country needs calm dialogue, and calm solutions and the respect for our institutions," said he. Aoun also said the investigation into the blast at the port would continue, putting him in conflict with protest leaders. The violence between religious groups is especially dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain define the country's politics and have often spilled over into violence, most catastrophically during the civil war which ended in 1990. The Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are Lebanon's largest groups but Hezbollah, which the United States and neighboring Israel consider as a terrorist organization, has emerged as the country's most powerful political force. Hezbollah, supported by Iran, is an arsenal of more than 100,000 weapons launched at Israel and thousands of fighters which have been dispatched to battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

On Friday, demanding a day of mourning, Mr. Mikati ordered all government buildings and schools to be closed for the day. Hassan Diab replaced former prime minister Miatri Mikati, who resigned together with his cabinet after the port explosion. There had been hope that Mr. Mikati would bring stability as his new government took shape. But at the same time, tensions over the port investigation grew deeper. The explosion at the port was caused by the sudden combustion of some 2,750 tons of volatile chemicals that had already been unloaded into the port years before, but more than a year later no one is held accountable.