By KAREEM CHEHAYEB and FAY ABUELGASIM
BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
Soldiers and police converged on the area and sought to negotiate an end to the standoff.
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 millions of people.
The gunman, identified as 42 year-old Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, entered a branch of the Federal Bank carrying a canister of gasoline, said a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The man fired three warning shots, the official said.
George al-Haj, head of the Bank Employees Syndicate, told local media that seven or eight bank employees were taken hostage along with two customers. The gunman released one hostage, who was taken away 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. Local media reported that he had about $200,000 stuck 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.
Cellphone video showed the man with his shotgun, demanding his money. In another video, two police officers outside the locked bank entrance asked him to release at least one of the hostages, but he refused.
Lebanon is suffering from the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Three-quarters of the population has plunged into poverty, and the Lebanese pound has declined in value by more than 90% against the U.S. dollar.
Dozens of protesters gathered in the area during the standoff, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks, hoping that the gunman would receive his savings. Some bystanders hailed him as 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 said her sister, who serves coffee and tea at the bank, was among the hostages and had not been harmed by the gunman. “He just wants his money,” Sharif said, standing outside the bank. “I will not leave until my sister comes out.”
In January, a coffee shop owner withdrew $50,000 trapped in a bank in Lebanon after taking employees hostage and threatening to kill them.
Lebanese security forces secure the area outside a bank in Beirut,, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. A Lebanese security official says a man armed with a shotgun has broken into a Beirut bank, holding employees hostage and threatening to set himself ablaze with gasoline unless he receives his trapped saving. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)