A Lebanese man armed with a shotgun has taken hostages at a Beirut bank and threatened to set himself on fire unless he receives his trapped savings, a security official has said.
The man, identified as 42-year-old Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, entered a branch of the Federal Bank in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district carrying a canister of petrol and the gun and took six or seven bank employees hostage, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
George al-Haj, the head of the bank employees’ syndicate, told local media that seven or eight bank employees and two customers were being held hostage.
The security official said the gunman fired three warning shots. Local media reported that he had about US$200,000 (£163,000) stuck in the bank.
Since late 2019 Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have implemented strict withdrawal limits on foreign currency assets, in effect evaporating the savings of many Lebanese. The country is in the worst economic crisis in its modern history, with three-quarters of the population in poverty and the value of the Lebanese pound having declined by more than 90% against the US dollar.
Lebanese army soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents surrounded the area, and officials were talking to the gunman to try to reach a settlement. One hostage was released and left by ambulance.
Video footage from earlier showed 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 the man was demanding to withdraw $2,000 to pay for his hospitalised father’s medical bills.
Hussein’s brother Atef, standing outside the bank, told the Associated Press that Hussein would be willing to turn himself in if the bank gave him money to help with the medical bills and family expenses. “My brother is not a scoundrel, he is a decent man,” he said. “He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others.”
Dozens of protesters gathered in the area, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks, hoping that Hussein would receive his savings. Some bystanders 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 Depositors’ Union, a legal and advocacy group, who was among the protesters. “And this has led to people taking matters into their own hands.”
In January a coffee shop owner withdrew $50,000 from a bank branch in eastern Lebanon after holding staff hostage and threatening to kill them.