A man took hostages in a bank in Lebanon. The crowd came to support him.

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BEIRUT — A gunman hijacked a bank branch in Beirut on Thursday, quickly becoming a folk hero for a weary and angry nation.

A man identified as Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank of Lebanon in the Hamra district with a can of gasoline, threatening to set himself on fire if he could not access his money. account, in the amount of approximately $210,000. He then brandished a rifle, which led to hours of tense hostage negotiations.

As the day progressed, a crowd gathered outside the bank to cheer him on. “Give him his money, give him his money,” they shouted in unison, pressing against a line of soldiers.

The incident reflected deep frustration in Lebanon over an ever-worsening economic crisis. Since 2019, there have been ad hoc limits on the amount of hard currency depositors can withdraw, an effort to avoid a run on banks and a collapse of the financial system. This policy has led to waves of nationwide protests, demanding accountability for the country’s dynastic political class and an end to rampant corruption.

But the country has only sunk deeper into economic malaise, with the pound losing more than 20 times its value against the US dollar since 2019. The World Food Program estimates that 46% of Lebanese households have no enough to eat.

Al-Sheikh Hussein broke into the bank saying he needed the money in his account to pay his father’s medical bills, a claim later corroborated by his brother. Banks currently allow depositors to withdraw a maximum of $400 per month.

Among those who gathered in front of the bank to show their solidarity was Sandy Chamoun, a 35-year-old artist.

“Each of us was robbed from different directions, from banks and from the government,” she said. “I thought we should be on the outside, supporting him, so he doesn’t give up, feel lonely or beleaguered.”

Video showed the scene outside a bank in Beirut after an armed man broke in and demanded money on August 11. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It’s called self-defense,” Chamoun added. “They have been depriving us of our money for three years and he tells them ‘my father is sick’. What more could they want? »

Chamoun’s late father and mother were both bank employees. Her mother retired two years before the crisis hit and she saw their savings locked away in an institution she had worked in for more than 40 years.

“What’s more insulting is that it happens to someone who all his life worked in a bank,” Chamoun said.

Hassan Moghnieh, the head of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon, who also mediated in the negotiations, said the gunman took eight hostages: six employees, the bank branch manager and a customer. He rejected the bank’s offers of $5,000, $10,000, and $30,000, eventually agreeing to have $35,000 given to his brother in exchange for his delivery and release of the hostages.

After a nearly seven-hour standoff, Al-Sheikh Hussein was escorted away in a white van. Some applauded him, others applauded him. It was unclear what criminal charges, if any, he might face.

Although May’s elections ushered in new independent candidates who raised hopes in the country, the government is still largely led by the same families and parties that fought in a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Riad Salameh, is under investigation, accused in March of illicit enrichment and money laundering. Last month, the central bank was raided by security agents. But with judicial authorities frequently on strike, corruption investigations tend to drag on unresolved.

Dina Abou Zour, a lawyer at the Union of Depositors, predicted that people would continue to resort to desperate measures if banks and politicians did not respond to their demands.

“We are really trapped. We are the hostages, not the [bank] the employees or, as it is described, the banks,” she said. “We are the victims; we are not the criminals.

Haidamous reported from Washington.

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