After hours of gun battles between militias, seven people were killed and eight others were terrorized by the militias, schools and government offices in Lebanon were shut down on Friday.
Following the armed clashes, the government requested a day for mourning. Gunmen used rocket-propelled and automatic weapons on the streets of capital. This was a reminder of the darkest period of the nation’s civil war of 1975-1990. Gun battles raised fears of sectarian violence returning to a country that is already suffering from one of the worst economic crises in 150 years.
The violence broke out at a protest by two major Shiite parties, Hezbollah & the Amal Movement. They were calling for the dismissal of the chief judge who investigated last year’s devastating explosion at Beirut port. Officials from both sides have indicated that the judge’s investigation will lead to them being held responsible for the explosion, which claimed the lives of at least 215 people.
Many of the protestors were armed. Although it was unclear who fired the first shot at the protestors, the confrontation quickly turned into intense gunfire along an ex-civil war frontline that separated predominantly Muslim and Christian areas in Beirut.
Ambulances raced to help the injured and gunfire was heard for several hours. Snipers fired from buildings. Apartment windows were broken by bullets. Residents fled to shelters and schools were evacuated.
Two Shiite groups claimed that their protestors were under fire from snipers on rooftops. They also accused the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces militia for starting the shooting.
According to the Health Ministry, a person injured died from his injuries on Friday. This brings the death toll up to seven. Two Hezbollah fighters were among the dead, as was Mariam Farhat (45), a mother of five. Her family confirmed that Farhat was killed by a sniper bullet while she was sitting near her balcony on the second floor of her apartment.
Munira Hamdar (Farhat’s mother in law) said that she and Farhat started screaming. She was then taken to the hospital on a stretcher, but she did not make it. She said that Farhat’s youngest child does not know her mother is dead and that she has been living with her maternal aunt from Thursday.
“She’s five years old. Hamdar asked, “How is she going to comprehend?” “My son’s family has been destroyed.”
Residents of Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood saw most of the fighting taking place as glass was swept from the streets and placed in front of apartments and shops. There were soldiers on armored personnel carrier vehicles that deployed on the streets. Barbed wire was also erected at street entrances. Many cars were destroyed.
Tayouneh is home to a large roundabout that divides Christian and Muslim areas. The roundabout was populated by newer, more pockmarked buildings that were next to those from civil war days.
Later Friday, Amal and Hezbollah held funerals for their deceased.
Tensions surrounding the port blast contributed to Lebanon’s many problems, including currency collapse, hyperinflation and soaring poverty, as well as an energy crisis that led to prolonged electricity blackouts.
The probe focuses on hundreds of tonnes of ammonium-nitrate improperly stored in a port warehouse which exploded on Aug. 4, 2020. At least 215 people were killed, thousands of people were injured and many homes were destroyed in the blast. It was the nation’s largest non-nuclear blast and further devastated a country already plagued by political divisions, financial problems, and other difficulties.
Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant and charged Lebanon’s former finance Minister. He is a senior member the Amal Movement and close ally to Hezbollah. Bitar has also charged three other ex-highly placed government officials with the intentional killing and negligent causes of the blast.
Bitar was attacked by officials from both Shiite parties, Amal, and Hezbollah for several days. They accused Bitar of politicizing the investigation, charging and summoning certain officials, and not others.
The 14-month-long investigation has not led to any charges against anyone associated with Hezbollah.
Bitar is the second judge to head the complex investigation. After legal challenges, Bitar succeeded his predecessor.
Ali Haidar, a Shiite supporter aged 23 who participated in Thursday’s protest, stated that nearby residents started to throw rocks, bottles, and furniture before snipers on rooftops opened fired on protesters from two directions, leaving people trapped in the middle.
Haidar stated that many people were killed on the spot. Haidar said that politicians wanted to bring the country to another civil conflict.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Bitar was following orders from “foreign embassies”, and that he would eventually blame Hezbollah.