Army soldiers set up checkpoints, schoolchildren stayed home and bullet casings littered the streets of Beirut on Friday after a day of fighting killed seven people, raising fears that an already collapsing country could fall even further.
Shops remained closed in the neighborhoods where gunmen opened fire at a rally Hezbollah had organized the day before, setting off a showdown that it blamed on the rival Lebanese Forces along an old front line that dates back to the civil war decades ago.
In a country deep in its worst-ever economic crisis, the clash — at a demonstration over a probe into last year’s massive port explosion — was the fiercest in the capital in more than a decade. The firefight renewed fears of factional violence and for many, dark memories of the past.
But families of the victims of the blast that tore through the Lebanese capital in August 2020 cautioned against letting the unrest derail the investigation.
“We warn anyone not to exploit the day’s painful events,” they wrote in a statement. “Our cause is one of pain and justice, not a political cause in which the powers and feuding tensions confront each other.”
The violence risked once again stalling the investigation into the volatile chemicals that detonated at Beirut’s port last year, killing more than 200 people and devastating entire districts. The inquiry into who was responsible has run into opposition from many of the country’s power brokers across the political spectrum.
The Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which led the protest to call for removing the investigating judge as part of wider pushback, accused snipers from the Lebanese Forces, a Christian group, of staging an attack. The other side denied the allegation, blaming a provocation from Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and classified by Washington as a terrorist group.
The death toll rose to seven on Friday after a man died of his wounds, according to the national news agency. The government, which took office last month, called for a day of mourning, with banks, schools and public offices closed across Lebanon.
Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, the Amal movement, held funerals for at least six of the dead. Two of them appeared to be Hezbollah members, based on a list its media office sent to The Washington Post.
Men with machine guns fired rounds into the air at a procession in Beirut while crowds chanted, some waving Hezbollah flags and others weeping. Flower wreaths sat on coffins draped with the yellow banner.
“We will not be dragged into civil war but at the same time, we cannot let the blood of our martyrs go in vain,” a senior official, Hashem Safieddine, told mourners.
Near the roundabout where the violence had erupted, people gathered in the street earlier on Friday to pay respects to a mother who was killed by a stray bullet in her home.
“We all hid inside, all of us yelling, ‘Stay away from the walls, stay away from the glass,’” recalled Tony, a 55-year-old resident who huddled at home with his two daughters as their windows shattered.
The owner of a car dealership on the same block, Mohammed al-Qarsafi, had felt bullets whiz by his face while he sat at his desk. “Where it was coming from, only God knows. … My nerves were frayed, I couldn’t walk,” he said. “I don’t know how I opened the door and ran away.”
Thursday’s confrontation escalated along a main road that runs between neighborhoods where the two opposing factions hold sway. It quickly inflamed tensions in a political landscape marked by a fragile sectarian power-sharing system and a culture of corruption.
This dynamic has also plagued attempts by the judge leading the blast probe to charge lawmakers and former ministers. More than a year after the explosion, victims are still waiting for answers from the investigation into why tons of ammonium nitrate were stored haphazardly in a warehouse for years before blowing up in a crowded city.
Francis reported from London, Dadouch from Beirut.
A wary Beirut reels after deadly gun battle raises fears of renewed conflict