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 gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to take out his money.
After hours of negotiations, he 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 actually 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”.
Hussein was holding at least six bank employees hostage, according to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations earlier on Thursday.
He had fired three warning shots, according to the official. Local media reported he has about $200,000 stuck in the bank.
Authorities had been attempting 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.
His brother, who was also on scene, told the Associated Press Hussein 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 gathered outside the bank, many of them 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 stand-off”.
“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 really sympathised with 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 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 sources. [He is] a disgruntled depositor who believes that this is his money, it is his right to have access to his money,” Khodr said earlier on Thursday.
“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.
Former Lebanese economy minister Raed Khoury, said what’s happening in Lebanon is “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.