Hostage standoff at Beirut bank ends with gunman’s surrender

Banks in Lebanon have implemented informal capital controls amid the ongoing economic crisis, effectively freezing savings.

Authorities say Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank in Beirut with a shotgun and a canister of petrol and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to take out his money [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

A hostage standoff in which a gunman demanded a Beirut bank let him withdraw his trapped savings has ended with the man’s surrender and no injuries.

Authorities say 42-year-old Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district with a shotgun and a canister of petrol or gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to take out his money.

The incident on Thursday was the latest involving local banks and angry depositors unable to access savings that have been locked in Lebanese banks since the country’s economic crisis began in 2019.

After hours of negotiations, Hussein accepted an offer from the bank to receive part of his savings, according to local media and a depositors group that took part in the talks. He then released his hostages and surrendered.

He did not receive any of the money, according to a lawyer who took part in the negotiations.

His wife, Mariam Chehadi, who was standing outside, told reporters after his arrest that her husband “did what he had to do”.

At least six bank employees had been held hostage, according to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Hussein had fired three warning shots, according to the official. Local media reported he has about $200,000 stuck in the bank.

Authorities had attempted to negotiate with Hussein for several hours, as army soldiers, police officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces, and intelligence agents surrounded the area.

Hussein’s brother, who was also at the scene, told the Associated Press news agency that the gunman 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 man shouts inside the bank as he holds hostages at gunpoint in Beirut, Lebanon [Hussein Malla/The Associated Press]

A crowd had gathered outside the bank during the standoff, with many of the bystanders chanting, “Down with the rule of the banks!”

Hassan Mughnieh, the head of Lebanon’s Depositors Association, told Reuters news agency 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 Hussein decided to lay down his arms, peacefully ending a “nearly seven-hour standoff”.

“We saw the police escort him outside the bank where he held hostage a number of bank employees as well as customers,” Khodr said.

“It is a negotiated settlement … he was demanding the $210,000 that was in his account. At first, the bank was willing to give him $10,000, but then they raised it to $30,000,” she said.

People who gathered at the scene showed support for Hussein as they believe that “his predicament is their predicament”, Khodr said.

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 United States 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.

Members of the Lebanese army secure the area outside Federal Bank in Beirut, Lebanon [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

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.

Lebanon’s former Economy Minister Raed Khoury said the limits on bank withdrawals in Lebanon are “really frustrating”.

“The man who is asking for his money is totally right; it’s his savings and he has the right to take his money,” Khoury told Al Jazeera.

However, his anger and frustration should be directed at the government, and not at the banks and bank employees, Khoury said.

“Banks and bank employees are also victims of the government’s corruption … and mismanagement over the last 30 years,” he 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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies