Beirut: A customer armed with a rifle and threatening to set himself ablaze held bank workers hostage Thursday in Lebanon’s capital, demanding to withdraw his trapped savings to pay hospital fees, security sources and a family member said.
The incident is the latest between local banks and angry depositors unable to access their savings held in cash-starved banks because of informal capital controls in economic crisis-hit Lebanon.
Security forces cordoned off a Federal Bank branch near west Beirut’s busy Hamra street where the armed man was holding staff hostage for several hours.
“He managed to get in with a pump-action rifle and flammable material, and threatened employees to give him his savings,” a security source told AFP, requesting anonymity.
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 more than $200,000 of his savings, 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-Cheikh Hussein told journalists: “My brother has $210,000 in the bank and wants to get just $5,000 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 iron door.
He replied angrily, wielding the rifle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
He later released one hostage, an AFP correspondent at the scene said, as dozens of onlookers and relatives of the hostages gathered outside.
Lebanon has been mired in a deep 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 percent of its value since the onset of the crisis.
Around 80 percent of Lebanese live in poverty, according to the United Nations, amid rampant inflation and extended power cuts.
International donors say aid is conditional on reforms, which politicians have so far resisted.