Armed clashes between sectarian militias briefly turned Beirut neighborhoods into a war zone Thursday, killing six people and raising fears that new violence could fill the void left by the near-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. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.
The fighting marked a new low in the small Mediterranean country’s descent into an abyss of interlocking political and economic crises.
Since the fall of 2019, its currency has collapsed, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle class to poverty. Instead of finding solutions, the country’s political elite has resorted to increasingly bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption.
Thursday’s clashes broke out at a protest led by two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement. The protesters were calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the Beirut explosion and determining who was responsible.
As the protesters gathered, gunshots 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 went to shoot back.
The resulting clashes raged in an area straddling the line between two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah.
Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese Forces of firing the initial shots, 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 Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, condemned the violence in posts on Twitter, saying the clashes had been caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens 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.
“Hezbollah must be taught a lesson now that it cannot desecrate the entire country, its institutions, people and dignity, in order to prevent anyone from expressing their opinion or carrying out their duties,” Antoine Zahra, a member of the Lebanese Forces’ executive board, said in a statement.
The Lebanese army said in a statement that it had “raided a number of locations in search of the shooters, arresting nine people — one of which is Syrian.”
“The army command made contact with the concerned parties on both sides to contain the situation,” it added.
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 of our institutions,” he said.
Aoun also said the investigation into the blast at the port would continue, putting him at odds with protest leaders.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for a day of mourning Friday, and ordered all government buildings and schools closed for the day.
Violence between religious groups is particularly 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 country’s 15-year 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, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at neighboring Israel and thousands of fighters who have been dispatched to battlefields in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes seeking refuge from the violence. In addition to those killed, about 30 people were wounded.