Heavy gunfire echoed through the streets of Beirut on Thursday after a morning of protests erupted in violent clashes that left at least five dead and 30 injured, according to authorities and video from the site.
The clashes erupted amid a protest led by Shiite political parties, including Hezbollah, a militant group backed by Iran, to press for the removal of the judge investigating the Beirut explosion. The judge, Tarek Bitar, has indicted a number of officials, including members and allies of the Shiite parties, who have accused him of political targeting.
The violence revealed deep sectarian tensions that have been exacerbated by an acute economic crisis and the state’s near-collapse. The small Mediterranean country has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others.
Witnesses described initial shots fired from tall buildings that appeared to be from snipers, followed by collisions with automatic rifles in the surrounding streets. As doctors struggled to evacuate the dead and wounded, residents crawled into their homes, worrying that events could start a new round of violence in a country with a long history of civil strife. Heavy smoke came from fires ignited by the fighting.
“It’s still really tense around us,” Joseph Musalem, a security guard at a school near the clashes, said by telephone. When the clashes broke out, school staff had rushed the children to the basement for protection, and some parents were in a hurry to pick them up. Others were still waiting in the basement for peace.
“Hopefully the shooting will calm down so we can move and return home,” Musalem said.
The Lebanese military deployed to try to calm the streets and responded to reports of snipers hiding on rooftops and running cannon fights.
Tensions have been high in Beirut over an ongoing investigation into the port blast, which killed more than 200 people and caused extensive damage to the Lebanese capital. The small Mediterranean nation is also in the midst of a financial collapse that the World Bank has said may be among the worst in the world since the mid-19th century.
Violence broke out in an area bordering two neighborhoods with years of tension – one stronghold for Shiite Muslim groups and another for Christians.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm as the army urged civilians to leave the area, warning that soldiers would shoot anyone who opened fire.
In a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal movement, another Shiite political party, accused named parties of opening fire on peaceful protesters in an attempt to “drag the country into a deliberate conflict.”
As children squeezed under desks in the classrooms near the site of the clashes and families coming into their homes, there were also reports of bank robberies as people desperately sought to withdraw their money.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and annual inflation last year was 84.9 percent. By June, prices of many consumer goods had nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.
The huge explosion last summer in the port of Beirut, which left a large part of the capital in disgrace, only increased desperation.
When the first shots rang as protesters gathered in central Beirut on Thursday morning, it was not clear where they had come from or who fired. But before the streets plunged into chaos, tensions surrounding an investigation into the port explosion in August 2020 had been rising for several weeks.
The blast killed more than 200 people and injured thousands as large shards in the city were destroyed or damaged.
The explosion was caused by the sudden burning of what was left of 2,750 tons of hazardous chemicals that had been unloaded into the harbor years before. Many Lebanese saw the explosion and powerful politicians’ efforts to hump the investigation into its causes as a strong example of the country’s deep dysfunction.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned, and for a year the country was without a functioning government. In September, Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications mogul, became prime minister.
But even as a new government took shape, tensions over the port inquiry grew deeper.
The investigation was suspended this week after two former ministers charged with charges filed a new legal complaint against the judge conducting the investigation.
The families of the victims condemned this move, with critics saying the country’s political leadership was trying to shield itself from responsibility for the biggest explosion in the turbulent country’s history.
Hezbollah has grown more and more in its criticism of Judge Tarek Bitar, and two days ago Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some of his most scathing criticisms of the referee, accusing him of “politically targeted” officials in his investigation.
Supporters of the group joined the protest to call for the removal of Judge Bitar on Thursday when shots were fired. Witnesses said snipers targeted the protesters.
It was the spark that set off some of the worst sectarian clashes in years. By late afternoon, the guns had fallen silent after four hours of cannon fighting, but the streets were still tense as residents crawled into their homes.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country still haunted by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is in a financial collapse that the World Bank has said may be among the worst in the world since the mid-19th century.
It closes like a vise on families whose money has plummeted in value while the cost of just about everything has skyrocketed.
Since the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value, and annual inflation in 2020 was 84.9 percent. In June, consumer goods prices nearly quadrupled in the previous two years, according to government statistics.
The huge explosion a year ago in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and left a large part of the capital in disgrace, only increased desperation.
The explosion exacerbated the country’s economic crisis, which was long overdue, and there is some relief in sight.
Years of corruption and bad politics have left the state deep in debt and the central bank was unable to continue to support the currency, as it had done for decades, due to a decline in foreign cash flows to the country. Now the bottom has fallen out of the economy, leaving behind a shortage of food, fuel and medicine.
All but the richest Lebanese have cut meat from their diets, waiting in long queues to get fuel for their cars and sweating through dizzying summer nights due to prolonged power outages.