Gunman demanding savings takes Bank of Beirut employees hostage

Beirut – A Lebanese man with a rifle took up to 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 beleaguered savings to pay his father’s medical bills.

Soldiers and police gathered in the area and sought to negotiate an end to the confrontation.

The hostage drama in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district was the latest painful episode in Lebanon’s economic downturn, now in its third year. Cash-strapped Lebanese banks since 2019 have placed strict limits on withdrawing assets in foreign currencies, effectively trapping the savings of millions of people.

A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the gunman, named as 42-year-old Bassam Sheikh Hussein, entered a Federal Bank branch with a gas canister. The official said the man fired three warning shots.

George Al-Hajj, head of the bank’s employees’ union, told local media that seven or eight bank employees were taken hostage along with two customers. The gunman released a hostage who was taken by an ambulance.

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

Hussain’s brother Atif, who is standing outside the bank, told The Associated Press that his brother would be willing to turn himself in if the bank gave him cash to help with his father’s medical bills and family expenses.

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“My brother is not a scoundrel,” said Atif Sheikh Hussein. “He takes what he has out of his pocket to give to others.”

Lebanese Army soldiers, Internal Security Forces officers, and intelligence agents surrounded the area.

A video clip on the mobile phone showed the man with his rifle and demanding his money. In another video, two police officers outside the entrance to the closed bank asked him to release at least one of the hostages, but he refused.

Lebanon is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Three-quarters of the population has fallen into poverty, and the Lebanese pound has depreciated by 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 passers-by praised him as a hero.

Lawyer Dina Abu Zour said, “What led us to this situation is the failure of the state to solve this economic crisis and the procedures of the banks and the central bank, where people can only recover some of their own money as if it were weekly allocations.” With the Union of Depositors of the Dawa Group, which was among the protesters. “This has led to people taking matters into their own hands.”

Abu Zour said Hussein’s wife told her that the family was 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 was not harmed by the gunman. “He just wants his money,” Sharif said, standing outside the bank. “I’m not leaving until my sister comes out.”

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In January, a cafe owner withdrew $50,000 trapped in a bank in Lebanon after he took employees hostage and threatened to kill them.

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