At least six killed in clashes in Lebanon's capital, Beirut

At least six killed in clashes in Lebanon's capital, Beirut

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

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

Lebanon - Armed clashes between sectarian militias on Thursday transformed Beirut neighborhoods into a deadly war zone raising fears that violence could fill the vacuum left by the sudden collapse of the Lebanese state. Rival gunmen, chanting 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 wounded and 30 killed. Residents cowered in their homes and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the gunfire. 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 plummeted more than 90 percent in value, which helped deny a Lebanese middle class to poverty and hurting them. The World Bank said Lebanon s economic collapse could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid 1800 s.

As the country has plunged into deeply disharmony, its political elite has resorted to bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year killed more than 200 people and exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption. The Covid -19 pandemic has only aggravated economic distress and sentiment of despair. The fighting on Thursday was part of the continuing fallout from the port explosion. Two Shiite Muslim parties - Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, and the Amal Movement, organized a protest calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the blast and determining who was responsible. As protesters scattered, shots rang out, apparently fired by snipers at nearby security buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters shot in side streets where they retrieved weapons and rejoined the fray.

On Thursday, it was unclear who fired the first shots. The clashes raged in an area straddling two neighborhoods, one Christian and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Shiite party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah. After almost four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army was deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes, scared at the possibility of further violence. The gunfire echoing in the streets recalled the worst days of the civil war that ravaged Beirut for 15 years.

We stayed in 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 because she fear she would get shot. I lived the civil war in the past, she said. Hezbollah officials accused the Lbanese forces of starting the shooting and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused unnamed forces of trying to drag the country into a deliberate strife. The head of the Lebanonese Forces Samir Geagea condemned the violence in public tweet, saying that the clashes had been caused by uncontrolled and widespread weapons which threaten citizens at every time and place, a reference to Hezbollah's huge arsenal. His group accused Hezbollah of exploiting sectarian tensions to destroy the port investigations, over fears it might be implicated.

The Syrian army said that it had arrested nine people from both sides, including a Lebanese. As night fell, the country president Michel Aoun gave a televised address calling for calm, condemning gunmen who fired 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 that the investigation into the blast at the port would continue, putting him at odds with protest leaders. Violence between religious groups is especially dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 prominent sects including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others. Conflicts between them and militias they maintain define the country's politics and have often spilled over into violence, most dramatically during the civil war which ended in 1990. The Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are Lebanon s largest groups, but Hezbollah has emerged as the country's most powerful political and military force, which Israel considers to be a terrorist organization by the United States and neighboring Israel. Leveraged by Israel, Hezbollah wields an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel and thousands of fighters who have been dispatched to Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

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