By Vatican News staff writer
Gunmen used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades on the streets of the Lebanese capital on Thursday, echoing the nation’s darkest era of the 1975-90 civil war.
The fear of a return to sectarian violence in the country, already struggling through one of the world’s worst economic crises of the past 150 years, is tangible.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for prayers and support for the people of Lebanon in the past two years as they face increasing difficulties in every sphere.
Thursday’s violence broke out during a protest organized by the two main Shiite parties - Hezbollah and the Amal Movement - calling 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 on 4 August, which killed at least 215 people and injured more than 7,000.
Local sources said many of the protesters were armed. It was not clear who fired the first shot, but the confrontation quickly devolved into heavy exchanges of gunfire along a former civil war frontline separating predominantly Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut.
The clashes reportedly lasted for hours, with snipers shooting from buildings and bullets penetrating apartment windows. Schools were evacuated and residents hid in shelters.
The two Shiite groups said their protesters came under fire from snipers deployed over rooftops. They accuse the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces militia of starting the shooting.
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.
Overseeing the investigation into what has been described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, Judge Tarek Bitar has been accused by officials from both Shiite parties, of politicizing the investigation by charging and summoning some officials and not others during the 14-month probe.