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.
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 army soldiers, police officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces, and intelligence agents surrounded the area.
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, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reported from Beirut.
“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.
“What we understand from people who are talking to him, because a negotiator on behalf of the government is now inside, trying to negotiate with the armed man to lay down his weapons. He is disgruntled. He is angry,” Khodr said. “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 sources. [He is] a disgruntled depositor who believes that this is his money, it is his right to have access to his money.”
She added it was the second time in recent months when somebody had held bank employees hostage in the country while demanding his money.
“A man a few months ago held hostage bank employers in the east of the country. He demanded his money, $50,000 because it was his savings. He couldn’t survive any longer,” she said. “He later surrendered and he also gave back the money. And after a while, the judge released him from prison.”