BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese man armed with a shotgun broke into a Beirut bank on Thursday, holding employees hostage and threatening to set himself ablaze with gasoline unless he receives his trapped savings, a security official said.
The man, identified as 42-year-old Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, allegedly entered a branch of the Federal Bank in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district carrying a canister of gasoline and held six or seven bank employees hostage, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. However, George al-Haj, the head of the Bank Employees Syndicate, told local media that there are some seven or eight bank employees held hostage, as well as two customers.
The man also fired three warning shots, the official said. Local media reported that he has about $200,000 stuck in the bank.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks since late 2019 have implemented strict withdrawal limits on foreign currency assets, effectively evaporating the savings of many Lebanese. The country today is suffering from the worst economic crisis in its modern history, where three-quarters of the population has plunged into poverty, and the value of the Lebanese pound has declined by over 90% against the U.S. dollar.
Lebanese army soldiers, police officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces, and intelligence agents have surrounded the area. Officers are talking to the armed man to reach a settlement, but have thus far been unsuccessful.
Hussein released one of the hostages, who left by ambulance. Cellphone video footage from earlier shows the disgruntled man with his shotgun, demanding his money back. In another video, two police officers behind the locked bank entrance asked the man to release at least one of the hostages, but he refused.
A customer at the bank who fled the building as the situation escalated, told local media that he was demanding to withdraw $2,000 dollars to pay for his hospitalized father’s medical bills. His brother Atef, standing outside the bank, told the Associated Press that his brother would be willing to turn himself in if the bank gave him money to help with his father’s medical bills and family expenses.
“My brother is not a scoundrel, he is a decent man,” Atef al-Sheikh Hussein told the AP. “He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others.”
Meanwhile, dozens of protesters gathered in the area, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks, hoping that Hussein would receive his trapped savings. Some bystanders even hailed him as a hero.
“What led us to this situation is the state’s failure to resolve this economic crisis and the banks’ and Central Bank’s actions, where people can only retrieve some of their own money as if it’s a weekly allowance,” said Dina Abou Zor, a lawyer with the legal and advocacy group the Depositors’ Union among the protesters. “And this has led to people taking matters into their own hands.”
In January, a coffee shop owner successfully withdrew $50,000 trapped in a bank branch in eastern Lebanon after holding bank staff hostage and threatening to kill them.
Lebanon has yet to implement formal capital controls since the onset of the economic crisis.
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