Tensions Rise in Lebanon After Deadly Gunfight

Schools, banks and government offices across Lebanon were closed on Friday, after hours of gunfire between armed militias that killed six people and terrorized Beirut residents.

The government has called for a day of mourning after the armed clashes, in which a group of men used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on the streets of the capital, recalls the country’s darkest era during the 1975-1990 civil war. The exchange of fire raised fears of a return to sectarian violence in a country struggling through its worst economic crisis in 150 years.

The violence broke out on Thursday amid a protest organized by the two main Shi’ite parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, calling for the sacking of the presiding judge who investigated the massive explosion in Beirut port last year. Many of the protesters were armed. It was not immediately clear who opened fire first, but the confrontation soon turned into a fierce firefight along the former civil war border separating Muslim-majority areas of Beirut.

Gunshots rang out for hours, and ambulances rushed to pick up the victims. The snipers fired from the buildings. Bullets pierced the windows of apartments in the area. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.

The two Shia groups said their protesters were fired upon by snipers stationed on the roof, accusing the Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, of starting the shooting. Among those killed, all Shiites, were two members of Hezbollah.

Shia Hezbollah fighters and Amal aim at targets during clashes in the Tayouneh area, a southern suburb of the capital Beirut, October 14, 2021.

Shia Hezbollah fighters and Amal aim at targets during clashes in the Tayouneh area, a southern suburb of the capital Beirut, October 14, 2021.

On Friday, residents of Beirut’s Tayouneh area, where most of the fighting took place, swept shards of glass from streets in front of shops and apartment buildings. Soldiers guarded the entrance to the settlement, and a barbed wire fence was erected at the mouth of the road. Many cars were damaged.

Tayouneh has a large roundabout that separates Christian and Muslim settlements.

Hezbollah and Amal held funerals for their slain members on Friday.

Tensions over the explosion at the port have caused a lot of trouble in Lebanon, including a slumping currency, hyperinflation, soaring poverty and an energy crisis that has led to prolonged power outages.

The study focused on hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored haphazardly in a harbor warehouse that exploded on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby settlements. It was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history and further devastates a country already beset by political divisions and financial difficulties.

Shia Amal movement and Hezbollah fighters cross Lebanese soldiers stationed in a clash area on the southern outskirts of the capital Beirut, October 14, 2021.

Shia Amal movement and Hezbollah fighters cross Lebanese soldiers stationed in a clash area on the southern outskirts of the capital Beirut, October 14, 2021.

Judge Tarek Bitar indicted and issued a detention order for the former Lebanese finance minister, who is a senior member of the Charity Movement and a close ally of Hezbollah. Bitar has also indicted three former senior government officials on charges of premeditated murder and negligence that caused the blast.

Officials from both Shiite parties, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, have been attacking Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by prosecuting and summoning some officials and not others.

None of the Hezbollah officials have been charged in the 14 -month investigation. [uh/ab]

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