A man armed with a shotgun is holding staff hostage at a bank in crisis-hit Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, threatening to set himself ablaze unless he receives his trapped savings, according to a security official.
The man entered a branch of the Federal Bank in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district on Thursday carrying a canister of petrol.
He was holding six or seven bank employees hostage, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Branch manager, Hassan Halawi, who is among those being held, told Reuters news agency in a phone interview: “I’m in my office. He [the hostage taker] gets agitated then calms down then gets agitated again.”
The man also fired three warning shots, the official said.
Local media reported he has about $200,000 stuck in the bank.
Authorities were attempting to negotiate with the man, as armed soldiers, police officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces, and intelligence agents surrounded the area.
Some bank customers managed to flee before he shut the doors on the rest, according to the security official.
At least one elderly man was released from the bank because of his age and government negotiators were deployed to begin talks with the hostage taker, the interior ministry said.
The man’s brother, who was also on scene, told the Associated Press his brother was seeking to withdraw his money to pay for his father’s medical expenses and other family needs.
“My brother is not a scoundrel, he is a decent man,” Atef al-Sheikh Hussein told the news agency.
“He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others.”
A crowd gat.d outside the bank, many of them chanting, “Down with the rule of the banks!”
One man in a striped shirt and baseball cap yelled, “We are depositors and we want our money! We are with him, we’re even ready to help him!”
Hassan Mughnieh, the head of Lebanon’s Depositors Association, told Reuters that he had been in touch with the hostage-taker and had relayed his demands to the bank’s leadership and top Lebanese officials.
“He wants to live, he wants to pay his electricity bill, feed his kids and treat his father in the hospital,” said Mughnieh, who was standing with the crowd outside the bank.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from outside the bank in Beirut, said that while negotiations are continuing, people fear that security forces may try to storm the bank.
People gat.d at the scene are “really sympathising” with the armed man, as they believe that “his predicament is their predicament”, she said.
“They’re telling not to give up, to keep on demanding for the $200,000 that is in his bank account,” Khodr said.
According to her, the banks are “ready to find a settlement that will involve paying $30,000 so that he would lay down his arms.”
Banks in Lebanon, which is suffering from the worst economic crisis in its modern history, have implemented strict withdrawal limits on foreign currency assets, effectively freezing the savings of many citizens, Khodr said.
“Banks have imposed informal capital controls for nearly three years. In late 2019, people were locked out from their savings. A few months later they started to impose limits on withdrawals as well. And if you had a [US] dollar account, they would disburse their money in Lebanese currency which has really devalued,” she said, adding that the value of the Lebanese pound has declined by more than 90 percent against the US dollar.
The crisis has left two-thirds of the population living in poverty, but foreign governments have avoided investing or bailing out the cash-strapped country without commitments to reforms to address corruption.
Mobile phone footage of the incident showed the man demanding his money. In another video, two police officers behind the locked bank entrance ask the man to release at least one of the hostages, but he refuses.
“He’s demanding his money because he hasn’t been able to find a job. This is the information we’re getting from second-hand .s. [He is] a disgruntled depositor who believes that this is his money, it is his right to have access to his money,” Khodr said, adding that other disgruntled depositors had gat.d at the scene, some in support of the man.
“This is not an armed robbery, if you like, or a bank robbery in the full sense of the word, but this is a man taking hostages…demanding what he believes is rightfully his,” she said.
Thursday’s standoff follows an incident in January when a 37-year-old coffee shop owner successfully withdrew $50,000 of his own money from a bank branch in eastern Lebanon after holding bank staff hostage.
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