(CNN)A fierce political dispute over a probe into Beirut's August 2020 port blast prompted the worst violence Lebanon has witnessed in more than 10 years on Thursday, after a protest descended into deadly street battles. At least six people were killed.
Beirut's worst street violence in more than a decade kills at least 6
Hundreds of supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its main Shia ally, Amal, were marching toward the Lebanese capital's Palace of Justice when shots were fired at the protesters by snipers on rooftops, forcing demonstrators and journalists to take cover, according to the country's interior minister, an army statement and local broadcasters.
The demonstrators were calling for the removal of a popular judge leading an investigation into the massive explosion at Beirut's port last August, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more.
As armed clashes ramped up on Thursday, social media footage showed masked gunmen, apparently affiliated with the protesters, firing RPGs and AK-47s from alleyways and from behind garbage dumps and street barriers.
The Lebanese Red Cross reported that six people were killed and more than 30 people were injured in the violence. Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters snipers and gunmen "shot people in the head," while four B7 rockets were fired into the air.
Nine people were arrested following the violence, the Lebanese army said in a statement late on Thursday.
Smoke was seen billowing from inside buildings that appeared to have been fired at. The epicenter of the clashes, the Tayouneh neighborhood, is close to the birthplace of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and has raised the specter of further turmoil in the crisis-ridden country.
The gun and rocket fire appeared to pause around four hours after the battles began. Some traffic returned to the streets of the capital as Lebanon's Civil Defense and Red Cross teams evacuated shellshocked residents from Tayouneh.
In a joint statement, Hezbollah and Amal accused right-wing Christian party The Lebanese Forces of being behind the sniper attacks. The Lebanese Forces party rejected those accusations and blamed the fighting on "widespread weapons" -- an allusion to Hezbollah's arms. The Christian party has been a decades-long staple of Lebanon's sectarian elite, but has sought to re-position itself as an anti-establishment party, a move that has been rejected by Lebanon's main opposition groups.
Thursday's violence was met with wholesale condemnation. Lebanese activists tweeted about a feeling of "deja vu" from the country's civil war, while President Michel Aoun and newly-minted Prime Minister Najib Mikati also said the fighting was reminiscent of that conflict. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who visited Beirut on Thursday, called the scenes "unacceptable." The European Union has also condemned the clashes.