An armed customer who threatened to set himself on fire held bank employees hostage in the Lebanese capital throughout the day Thursday and demanded that his trapped life savings be withdrawn to pay hospital fees, security sources and a family member said.
The incident is the latest between local banks and angry depositors who are unable to access savings frozen in Lebanese banks after the country’s economy collapsed in 2019.
Security forces cordoned off a branch of the Federal Bank near West Beirut’s business center on Hamra Street, where the gunman held employees hostage for several hours.
Local residents said the incident began around 10:30 a.m. (07:30 GMT).
He had “a pump-action rifle and combustible material and threatened employees to give him his life savings,” a security source told AFP, asking not to be identified.
Another security source said a man in his 40s “poured gasoline all over the bank and closed the front door of the bank, taking staff hostage.”
He claimed more than $200,000 worth of savings, the source said.
The man “threatened to set himself on fire and kill everyone in the branch and pointed his gun at the bank manager’s face,” the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) said.
He said he stormed the bank because his father “was hospitalized for an operation a while back and couldn’t pay for it,” NNA reported.
His brother Atef al-Cheikh Hussein told reporters, “My brother has $210,000 in the bank and he only wants $5,500 to pay hospital bills.”
His brother “got the gun from the bank and didn’t bring it with him”.
– A cigarette, a gun –
A video circulating on social media showed two people negotiating with the gunman behind the bank’s metal door.
He replied angrily, rifle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
He later released two hostages, local AFP correspondents said, as dozens of onlookers and families of the hostages gathered outside.
It is unclear how many hostages remain in the bank.
Lebanon has been mired in an economic crisis since 2019, when the market value of the local currency began to decline and banks began enforcing draconian restrictions on foreign and local currency withdrawals.
Lenders have also prevented money transfers abroad.
“This is not the first such case. Similar incidents happen again and again. We need a radical solution,” George al-Hajj, leader of the Lebanese bank workers’ union, told AFP outside the bank.
“The savers want their money, and unfortunately their anger erupts on the faces of bank employees because they cannot reach management.”
The national currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value since the outbreak of the crisis.
Inflation is rampant, electricity is scarce and, according to the United Nations, around 80 percent of the Lebanese live in poverty.
Many Lebanese blame the country’s political elite, wealthy and veteran figures who have entrenched themselves for decades. They cite corruption and also accuse the banking sector of causing the country’s economic collapse.
International donors say aid is tied to reforms that politicians have so far resisted.
Some Lebanese have expressed their solidarity with the kidnapper.
Demonstrators gathered at the scene and chanted “Down with the rule of the banks”.
Others took to social media to express their support.
“A saver doesn’t take people hostage. It is bank owners and their friends in the ruling militias who are holding an entire people hostage,” economist Jad Chaaban said on his Facebook page.
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