BEIRUT — A Lebanese man with a shotgun took up to 10 employees and customers hostage at a Beirut bank Thursday and threatened to set himself on fire with gasoline unless he was allowed to withdraw some of his trapped savings to pay his father’s medical bills.
The area was surrounded by police and soldiers who tried to reach an agreement.
The hostage drama in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district was the latest painful episode in Lebanon’s economic free-fall, now in its third year. Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks since 2019 have put strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency assets, effectively trapping the savings of many people.
A gunman identified as Bassam al Sheikh Hussein, 42, entered the Federal Bank Branch carrying a canister containing gasoline. According to a security officer who spoke under anonymity because of regulations, Official said that the gunman fired three shots of warning.
George al-Haj (head of the Bank Employees Syndicate) stated that 7 to 8 bank employees and two customers were held hostage. The gunman freed one hostage and took him by ambulance.
A bank customer who fled the building told local media that the gunman was demanding to withdraw $2,000 to pay his hospitalized father’s medical bills. The local media reports that the gunman had approximately $200,000 left in the bank.
Hussein’s 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 said. “He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others.”
Lebanese army soldiers, police officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces and intelligence agents surrounded the area.
A cellphone video captured the man holding his gun and demanding money. Two police officers stood outside the bank’s locked entrance and asked the man to release at most one hostage. He refused.
Continue reading: Fight for Justice Continues Two Years after the Beirut Explosion
The worst economic crisis that Lebanon has ever faced is the current one. The Lebanese dollar has fallen by over 90% to the US dollar, with three quarters of its population falling into poverty.
Tens of thousands protestors gathered around the scene during the standoff. They chanted slogans against Lebanese banks and government, in hopes that the gunman would be able to withdraw his money. Many bystanders called him 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 advocacy group Depositors’ Union who was among the protesters. “And this has led to people taking matters into their own hands.”
Abou Zor said Hussein’s wife told her the family is heavily indebted and struggling to make ends meet.
Dania Sharif claimed that her sister, who works at the bank as a waitress, was one of the hostages. He had not injured the other hostages. “He just wants his money,” Sharif said, standing outside the bank. “I will not leave until my sister comes out.”
A coffee shop owner took his staff hostage in January and held them captive in Lebanon.
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