BEIRUT: Two people were killed in Lebanon on Wednesday in an exchange of fire between Hezbollah members and residents of a Christian village after a truck belonging to the heavily armed Shi’ite group overturned in the area, security sources said.
A member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and a resident of the mountain village of Kahaleh were killed in the clash, some 12 km (7 miles) southeast of Beirut, the sources said. The sides accused each other of starting the deadly clash.
It marked the most serious confrontation between Hezbollah and its Lebanese opponents since deadly clashes in Beirut nearly two years ago, threatening to worsen sectarian tensions as Lebanon is paralysed by deep political and economic crises.
Local lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party opposed to Hezbollah, accused the group of transporting weapons in the truck.
Hezbollah said the vehicle was its property and accused “militias” in the area of attacking its crew, saying a man “protecting the truck” was wounded and later died.
In a statement, it said an exchange of fire had taken place with “the attacking gunmen”. It did not say what was on the truck.
The local office of the Lebanese Forces party accused “an armed group” accompanying the vehicle of firing at civilians, leading to the death of a man identified by the sources as a Christian resident of Kahaleh.
Fadi Bejjani, 64, was identified as the victim by his son Yousuf, who told Reuters the pair had tried to get close to the truck after it flipped over.
“We were a metre away but couldn’t see what was inside the truck. At least three men started shooting at us two with machine guns and one with a pistol. My dad fell to the ground but there was so much gunfire that we couldn’t get to him for three minutes,” Bejjani, 39, said.
The truck had overturned on a downhill turn near Kahaleh on the main road between Syria’s capital Damascus and Beirut.
Residents swiftly shut down the road around it.
Nazih Matta, a parliamentarian representing the area from the Lebanese Forces party, accused Hezbollah of transporting weapons to Beirut on the truck. “A man from Kahaleh was killed - this is totally unacceptable,” Matta said in televised comments.
Abdo Abou Khalil, an official from Kahaleh, said residents intended to keep the road around the overturned truck closed.
MTV Lebanon and Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed aired earlier footage of men in plainclothes shooting rifles in the street.
They later showed Lebanese troops deployed around the lorry at night while a crane worked to remove wooden crates from it.
The contents of the truck were not visible, but large groups of residents were still gathered around.
Lebanon’s caretaker premier Najib Mikati spoke to army commander General Joseph Aoun and called for “calm and wisdom” while a formal investigation takes place.
Hezbollah, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, is Lebanon’s most powerful group. It has fought numerous conflicts with Israel and deployed fighters to support President Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war.
Its arsenal has long been a point of conflict in Lebanon, where its opponents accuse the group of undermining the state.
Two years ago, seven people were killed - followers of the Hezbollah group and its ally, the Amal Movement - as they gathered for a demonstration against a judge investigating the 2020 Beirut port explosion. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea at the time denied allegations by both parties that gunmen loyal to his party targeted them with sniper fire.