Armed man demanding savings takes Beirut bank staff hostage

Beirut — A Lebanese man armed with a shotgun held 10 employees and customers hostage at a Beirut bank on Thursday and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to withdraw some of his stranded savings to pay his father’s medical bills.

Soldiers and police gathered in the area and tried to negotiate to end the encounter.

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. Since 2019, Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on the withdrawal of foreign currency assets, effectively wiping out the savings of millions.

The gunman, identified as 42-year-old Bassam al-Sheikh Hussain, entered the Federal Bank branch with a can of petrol, said a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity to comply with regulations. The man fired three warning shots, the officer said.

George Al-Hajj, head of the Bank Employees Syndicate, told local media that seven or eight bank employees, including two customers, were taken hostage. The gunman freed one hostage, who was taken away by ambulance.

A bank customer who fled the building told local media that the gunman was demanding $2,000 to pay his hospitalized father’s medical bills. Local media said he had about $200,000 stuck in the bank.

Hussain’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 cynic. He is a decent man,” said Atef Al-Sheikh Hussain. “Whatever is in his pocket he takes to give to others.”

Lebanese army soldiers, police officers from the country’s internal security forces and intelligence agents cordoned off the area.

The cellphone video showed the man with a shotgun demanding his money. In another video, two police officers outside a locked bank entrance ask him to release at least one of the hostages, but he refuses.

Lebanon is suffering from the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Three-quarters of the population has fallen into poverty and the Lebanese pound has depreciated more than 90% against the US dollar.

Dozens of protesters gathered in the area during the standoff, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks, hoping the gunman would get his savings. Some viewers hailed him as a hero.

“What has led us to this situation is the state’s failure to solve this financial crisis and the actions of the banks and the central bank, where people can only recover some of their own money as if it were a weekly allowance,” said lawyer Dina Abu Zor. Advocacy groups were among the protesters along with the depositors union. “And that causes people to take matters into their own hands.”

Abu Zor said Hussein’s wife told him the family was heavily in debt and struggling to make ends meet.

Dania Sharif said her sister, who serves coffee and tea at the bank, was among the hostages and was not harmed by the gunman. “He just wants his money,” Sharif said, standing outside the bank. “I won’t quit until my sister comes out.”

In January, the owner of a coffee shop withdrew $50,000 he held in a bank in Lebanon after taking employees hostage and threatening to kill them.

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