Suspect in Beirut bank hostage crisis demanded to withdraw his own money, police say

A gunman demanding that a Beirut bank let him withdraw his trapped savings to pay his father’s medical bills took up to 10 people hostage in a seven-hour standoff on Thursday before surrendering in exchange for what a family lawyer said to be US$35,000 of his money.

Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old delivery driver, was quickly arrested as he left the bank. No one was hurt.

Hussein’s wife, Mariam Chehadi, who stood outside the bank, told reporters after his arrest that her husband “did what he had to do”.

The hostage-taking in the bustling neighborhood of Hamra was the latest painful episode in Lebanon’s economic freefall, now in its third year. Banks in the country, cash-strapped since 2019, imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency assets, tying up the savings of millions of people.

Dozens of protesters gathered during the standoff, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks, hoping the gunman would receive his savings. Some passers-by hailed him as a hero.

A man shouts as he protests outside a bank where a gunman held hostages in Beirut on Thursday. Some of the passers-by hailed the man as a hero. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

Authorities said Hussein entered the bank with a shotgun and a can of gasoline, fired three warning shots and locked himself in with his 10 hostages, threatening to set himself on fire if he was not allowed to withdraw his money.

Hussein had US$210,000 trapped in the bank and was struggling to withdraw his money to pay his father’s medical bills, said Hassan Moghnieh, who took part in the negotiations as head of the Association’s advocacy group depositors in Lebanon.

Hussein’s brother, Atef al-Sheikh Hussein, waited outside the bank during the clash.

“My brother is not a scoundrel. He is an honest man. He takes what he has out of his own pocket and gives to others,” he said.

After hours of negotiations, Hussein accepted an offer for some of his savings, and the bank gave his brother US$35,000, according to Dina Abou Zour, a lawyer and activist representing the Hussein family.

Lebanese security forces secure the area outside a bank in Beirut on Thursday. Local media said the man accepted an offer to receive part of his life savings, freed the hostages and surrendered. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

Federal bank lawyer Roy Madkour declined to discuss the terms of the negotiations. “The case now belongs to justice, and it will decide,” he said.

Lebanese soldiers, officers from the country’s Internal Security Forces and intelligence operatives converged on the area during the clash. Seven or eight bank workers were taken hostage along with two customers, George al-Haj, head of the Bank Employees’ Union, told local media.

Lebanon’s economic crisis

Lebanon is suffering from the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

Three-quarters of the population plunged into poverty and the Lebanese pound lost more than 90% of its value against the US dollar.

WATCH | In Lebanon, anger is growing over currency losses, corruption:

Lebanon paralyzed by economic crisis and corruption

Lebanese are angry with the government over an economic crisis that has caused gas shortages and currency losses, all of which were made worse by last year’s devastating explosion and ongoing corruption.

“What has led us to this situation is the inability of the state to solve this economic crisis and the actions of the banks and the Central Bank, where people can only recover part of their own money. as if it were a weekly allowance,” said Abou Zour, who is a lawyer with the advocacy group Union des Dépositeurs.

“It got people to take matters into their own hands,” she said.

In January, a cafe owner withdrew US$50,000 trapped in a bank in Lebanon after he took employees hostage and threatened to kill them.

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