The Lebanese army on Thursday said it found ammunition in a lorry belonging to Hezbollah that overturned near Beirut, leading to armed clashes in which two people were killed.
Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for “calm and wisdom”, as a formal investigation was launched into the death of a Hezbollah member and a resident in the incident on Wednesday night in the mountains overlooking the capital.
Both sides have accused each other of shooting first in a brief skirmish which broke out after residents gathered around the overturned lorry.
A Hezbollah source, in a statement to The National, claimed gunmen from the town of Kahaleh, a largely Christian area, opened fire on the group at the scene to escort the vehicle, killing a member of the Iran-backed armed group.
Kahaleh resident Fadi Bejjani, 64, was also killed. His body was identified by his son Youssef.
“We were a metre away but couldn’t see what was inside the lorry. At least three men started shooting at us – two with machineguns 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,” his son, 39, told Reuters.
A source within the parliamentary bloc opposed to Hezbollah denied the situation would escalate “because the people of Kahaleh will not seek vendetta and attack Hezbollah premises”.
They added: “Unless Hezbollah is planning otherwise. They have been the ones launching the attacks.”
In a bid to calm tensions, the Lebanese army was deployed to the scene of the clashes on Thursday.
Nazih Matta, an MP representing the area for the Lebanese Forces party, said: “A man from Kahaleh was killed – this is totally unacceptable.” The Christian-led Lebanese Forces is the parliament's largest party and a staunch critic of Hezbollah.
"This is Lebanon," said Mohammad, who is from southern Lebanon but works in Beirut.
"I think nothing will happen. Kahaleh is far from Dahieh," he said, referring to the south Beirut suburb that is one of Hezbollah's key strongholds.
"They are far from each other. Nothing will happen, because all of them will lose."
The Hezbollah source said the vehicle was on the way to Beirut from the Bekaa Valley, an area where the group exerts significant control. The road is the main motorway between the Syrian capital Damascus and the Lebanese capital.
The source claimed that after the vehicle overturned, and as those responsible for delivering it were making calls to secure alternative transport for its contents, armed men from the area threw stones and then opened fire.
The Lebanese military then moved on the scene and were reported to have prevented access to the area while a crane removed wooden crates from the lorry. Local TV stations broadcast footage of men in plain clothes firing rifles in the street, and local residents surrounding the lorry.
“The Lebanese army intervened and prevented the gunmen from approaching the lorry,” the Hezbollah source said.
The Lebanese army said the contents of the lorry were taken to a military base and the vehicle was removed in the early hours of Thursday before traffic was allowed through again.
The funeral of the deceased Hezbollah member Ahmed Qassas was held on Thursday, with heavy gunfire – into the air – heard from the southern suburbs of Beirut.
"We will not be dragged into strife and we will not achieve the goals of those who want to take the country into strife," Hezbollah cleric Ali Fahs said during the funeral.
Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite militia, was the only armed group allowed to keep its arms after the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. Its opponents accuse it of having a stranglehold over Lebanon and have repeatedly demanded that it be disarmed.
Hezbollah is a sworn enemy of Israel, having engaged in repeated clashes before.
One political source opposed to Hezbollah questioned “why anyone needs to transport arms into a peaceful civilian area”, far from the Israeli border in the south.
Aside from the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah also has strongholds in the suburbs of Beirut and in southern Lebanon.