BEIRUT, Lebanon — Armed clashes between sectarian militias transformed Beirut neighborhoods into a deadly war zone on Thursday, raising fears that violence could fill the void left by the near-collapse of the Lebanese state.
Rival gunmen, chanting in support of their leaders, hid behind cars and dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. At least six people were killed and 30 wounded. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.
It was some of the worst violence in years to convulse Beirut, aggravating the sense of instability in a small country already buffeted by devastating political and economic crises and inviting recollections of its civil war that ended more than three decades ago.
Since the fall of 2019, Lebanon’s currency has plummeted more than 90 percent in value, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle class to poverty. The World Bank has said Lebanon’s economic collapse could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s.
Grave fuel shortages in recent months have left all but the wealthiest Lebanese struggling with prolonged power blackouts and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once vaunted banking, medical and education sectors have all suffered profound losses, as professionals have fled to seek livelihoods abroad.
A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year killed more than 200 people and exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption. The Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the economic distress and sense of despair.
The fighting on Thursday was part of the continuing fallout from the port explosion.
Two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, and the Amal Movement — had organized a protest calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the blast and determining who was responsible.
As the protesters gathered, gunshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets, where they retrieved weapons and rejoined the fray.