BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon on Friday mourned seven people killed in gunbattles on the streets of Beirut the previous day, a confrontation that erupted over a long-running probe into last year’s massive port blast in the city and raised fears of the country being drawn into further violence.
Underlying the violence are Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian divides and growing pushback against the port investigation by the two main Shiite Muslim parties, the powerful Hezbollah militant group and its allied Amal Movement. Hezbollah said it would not be pulled into more violence.
Schools, banks and government offices across Lebanon shut down for a day of mourning Friday, while funerals were held in several parts of the country.
At a cemetery in a southern suburb of Beirut, Hezbollah members in military uniforms paid their respects, standing before three coffins draped with the group’s yellow flag and covered with white roses. Hundreds of women in black robes attended, and some senior Hezbollah officials made speeches. Mourners fired in the air for several minutes.
A separate funeral was organized for an Amal fighter, also in southern Beirut.
Thursday’s clashes saw gunmen battling each other for several hours with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the streets of Beirut. It was the most violent confrontation in the city in years, echoing the nation’s darkest era of the 1975-90 civil war.
The firefight raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence in a country already struggling through one of the world’s worst economic crises of the past 150 years.
The violence broke out at a protest organized by Hezbollah and Amal which called for the removal of the lead judge investigating last year’s massive explosion at Beirut port. Officials from both parties have suggested the judge’s investigation is heading toward holding them responsible for the blast, which killed at least 215 people.
Many of the protesters on Thursday had been armed.
Ali Haidar, a 23-year-old Shiite who took part in the protest, said nearby residents first started throwing rocks, bottles and furniture, before snipers on rooftops opened fire on the protesters from two directions, leaving people stuck in the middle.
“Then everyone started defending their neighborhood,” he said.
It was not clear who fired the first shot, but the confrontation quickly devolved into heavy exchanges of gunfire along a former civil war front line separating predominantly Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut.
The two Shiite groups accused the Christian Lebanese Forces party of starting the shooting. The Lebanese Forces party denied the charges.
“We will not be pulled into civil war, but we will also not allow the blood that was shed to go in vein,” senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said during the funeral. He accused the Lebanese Forces of committing a “massacre.”
Security officials said authorities detained 17 Lebanese and two Syrians for questioning over Thursday’s firefight. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The death toll rose to seven of Friday, after a man succumbed to his injuries, the Health Ministry said. The dead included two fighters from Hezbollah and three from Amal.
Residents in the Tayouneh area of Beirut, where the fighting played out, swept glass from the streets in front of shops and apartment buildings on Friday morning. Soldiers in armored personnel carriers deployed on the streets, and barbed wire was erected at street entrances. Several cars were still parked in the area, damaged in Thursday’s firefight.
The Tayouneh roundabout leads to a boulevard that splits the area down the middle into Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. Newly pockmarked buildings from Thursday’s fighting dotted the boulevard, next to the ones scarred from the civil war more than 30 years ago.
One of those killed in the neighborhood was Mariam Farhat, a mother of five. She was shot by a sniper bullet as she sat near the door of the balcony of her second floor apartment, her family said Friday.
“We started screaming. She was taken on a stretcher but did not reach the hospital,” said Munira Hamdar, Farhat’s mother-in-law. She said Farhat’s youngest daughter does not know that her mother was killed, and has been staying with her maternal aunt since Thursday.
Farhat was laid to rest Friday, along with the two Hezbollah fighters, in the Hezbollah ceremony in south Beirut. Her casket also draped with a Hezbollah flag.
Tensions over the port blast have contributed to Lebanon’s many troubles, including a currency collapse, hyperinflation, soaring poverty and an energy crisis leading to extended electricity blackouts.
The investigation is looking into how hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, improperly stored at a port warehouse for years, detonated on Aug. 4, 2020. The blast killed at least 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of nearby neighborhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and further devastated Lebanon, already beset with political divisions and financial woes.
Judge Tarek Bitar has charged and issued arrests warrant for Lebanon’s former ministers of finance and public works, both close allies of Hezbollah. Bitar has charged the two, along with another former minister and prime minister, with intentional killing and negligence that led to the blast.
Officials from both Shiite parties, as well as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, had attacked Bitar for days, accusing him of politicizing the investigation by charging and summoning some officials and not others.
A senior Hezbollah official, Mohammed Daamoush, said in a sermon during Friday prayers that the group will keep pushing to get Bitar removed and “return the port investigation on its right track.” He did not elaborate but analysts close to Hezbollah said they expect Shiite Cabinet ministers and some of their allies to boycott Cabinet meetings.
No Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month investigation.
Bitar is the second judge to lead the complicated investigation. His predecessor was removed following legal challenges.