A man took hostages at a bank in Lebanon. People came to support him.

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BEIRUT – A gunman took hostages at a bank branch in Beirut on Thursday and quickly became a folk hero for a tired and angry nation.

A man identified as Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank of Lebanon in the Hamra neighborhood with a can of gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire if he did not access the nearly $210,000 in his account. He then brandished a rifle, leading to an hour-long tense hostage negotiation.

As the day wore on, crowds gathered outside the bank to cheer him on. “Give him his money, give him his money,” they shouted in unison as they pressed against a line of soldiers.

This incident was deeply reflected Disappointment One in Lebanon continues to deteriorate financial crisis. Since 2019, there have been ad hoc limits on how much hard currency depositors can withdraw, an attempt to prevent a run on banks and a collapse of the financial system. The policy has sparked waves of nationwide protests, demanding accountability for the country’s dynastic rule. political class and an end to endemic corruption.

But with the pound depreciating 20-fold against the US dollar since 2019, the country has sunk deeper into economic turmoil. The World Food Program estimates that 46 percent of Lebanese households do not have enough to eat.

Al-Sheikh Hussain entered the bank and said he wanted money in his account to pay his father’s medical bills, a claim later confirmed by his brother. Banks currently allow depositors to withdraw a maximum of $400 per month.

Sandy Chamoun, a 35-year-old artist, was among those who gathered outside the bank to show their solidarity.

“Every one of us has been robbed from different directions, from the banks and from the government,” she said. “I thought we should be out there, supporting him, so he doesn’t give up, so he doesn’t feel alone or surrounded.”

Video shows the scene outside a Beirut bank on August 11 as gunmen stormed in and demanded money. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s called self-defense,” Chamoon added. “After three years they are depriving us of our money, and he is telling them ‘my father is sick.’ What more do they want?”

Chamoon’s late father and her mother were both bank employees. Her mother retired two years before the crisis, and she saw the organization she had worked for more than 40 years withdraw her life savings.

“What’s even more insulting is that this is happening to someone who has worked in the bank all his life,” Chamoun said.

Hassan Moghanieh, head of the Depositors Association in Lebanon, who also acted as a mediator in the negotiations, said the gunman took eight hostages: six employees, a bank branch manager and a customer. He rejected the bank’s offers of $5,000, $10,000, and $30,000, and finally agreed to pay $35,000 to his brother and free the hostages.

After about seven hours of fighting, Al-Sheikh Hussain was taken out in a white van. Some clapped for him while others cheered. It was unclear what criminal charges he would face.

Although elections in May elected hopeful new independent candidates, the government is still largely ruled by the same families and parties that fought each other during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Riyad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, was charged in March with illegal enrichment and money laundering. Last month, the central bank was raided by security personnel. But with judicial officers frequently on strike, corruption probes drag on without a verdict.

Depositors’ union lawyer Dina Abu Zour predicted that people would resort to desperate measures if banks and politicians failed to meet their demands.

“We’re really stuck. We are hostages, no [bank] Employees, or as it is being portrayed, banks,” she said. “We are victims; We are not criminals.”

Haidamus reported from Washington.

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