BEIRUT: A Lebanese man who had held six people hostage at gunpoint inside a commercial bank in Beirut for around six hours exited the bank on Thursday evening, a Reuters journalist said.
He lifted his hands in salute as he exited the bank accompanied by security forces. No hostages appeared to be harmed, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.
After hours of negotiations, he accepted an offer from the bank to receive part of his savings, according to local media and a depositors group that took part in the talks. He then released his hostages and surrendered. The gunman was identified as 42 year-old Bassam Al Sheikh Hussain.
Earlier in the day, the customer threatened to set himself ablaze, demanding to withdraw his trapped savings to pay hospital fees. The incident is the latest between local banks and angry depositors unable to access savings that have been frozen in Lebanese banks after the country’s economy collapsed in 2019.
Security forces cordoned off a Federal Bank branch near west Beirut’s commercial centre of Hamra Street where the armed man has been holding staff hostage for several hours.
Local residents said the incident began about 10:30 am (0730 GMT).
He had “a pump-action rifle and flammable material, and threatened employees to give him his savings,” a security source told AFP, requesting anonymity. The gunman was identified as 42 year-old Bassam Al Sheikh Hussain.
Another security source said a man in his forties “poured gasoline all over the bank, and closed the bank’s front door, holding employees hostage”.
He demanded savings worth more than $200,000, the source said.
The man “threatened to set himself on fire and to kill everyone in the branch, pointing his weapon in the bank manager’s face”, said Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA).
He said he stormed the bank because his father “was admitted to hospital some time ago for an operation and could not pay for it”, NNA reported.
His brother Atef Al Sheikh Hussain told journalists: “My brother has $210,000 in the bank and wants to get just $5,500 to pay hospital bills.”
His brother had grabbed the weapon “from the bank and did not bring it with him”.
A video circulating on social media showed two people negotiating with the armed man behind the bank’s metal door.
He replied angrily, wielding the rifle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
He later released two hostages, AFP correspondents at the scene said, as dozens of onlookers and relatives 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 plummet and banks started to enforce draconian restrictions on foreign and local currency withdrawals.
Lenders have also prevented transfers of money abroad.
“This is not the first such case. Similar incidents keep happening. We need a radical solution,” George Al Hajj, who heads Lebanon’s bank employees’ union, told AFP outside the bank.
“Depositors want their money, and unfortunately their anger explodes in the face of bank employees because they cannot reach the management.”
The local currency has lost more than 90 per cent of its value since the onset of the crisis.
Inflation is rampant, electricity is scarce and, according to the United Nations around 80 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty.
Many Lebanese blame the country’s political elite, wealthy and aged figures entrenched for decades. They cite corruption and also accuse the banking sector for the country’s economic collapse.
International donors say aid is conditional on reforms, which politicians have so far resisted.
Some Lebanese have expressed solidarity with the hostage-taker.
Protesters gathered at the scene and chanted “down with the rule of the banks”.
Others took to social media to express their support.
“A depositor is not taking people hostage. It’s bank owners and their friends in the ruling militias who are taking an entire people hostage,” economist Jad Shaaban said on his Facebook page.
In January, a coffee shop owner successfully withdrew $50,000 trapped in a bank branch in eastern Lebanon after holding bank staff hostage, and threatening to kill them.
Lebanon has yet to implement formal capital controls since the onset of the economic crisis.