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

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An armed man demanding 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 Thursday before surrendering in exchange for what a family lawyer said was $35,000 US of his money.

Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old food-delivery driver, was promptly arrested as he walked out of the bank. No one was injured.

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

The hostage drama in the city’s bustling Hamra district was the latest painful episode in Lebanon’s economic free-fall, now in its third year. The country’s cash-strapped banks since 2019 have slapped 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 that the armed man would receive his savings. Some bystanders hailed him as a hero.

A man shouts as he protests outside a bank where an armed man held hostages in Beirut on Thursday. Some of the bystanders hailed the man as a hero. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

Authorities said Hussein entered the bank with a shotgun and a canister of gasoline, fired three warning shots and locked himself in with his 10 hostages, threatening to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to take out his money.

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

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

“My brother is not a scoundrel. He is a decent man. He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others,” he said. 

After hours of negotiations, Hussein accepted an offer for part of his savings, and the bank handed over $35,000 US to his brother, 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 savings, released the hostages and surrendered. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

Federal bank attorney Roy Madkour refused to discuss the terms of the negotiations. “The matter now rests with the judiciary, and they will decide,” he said. 

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

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

Three-quarters of the population has plunged into poverty, and the Lebanese pound has declined in value by more than 90 per cent against the U.S. dollar.

WATCH | In Lebanon, anger grows over currency losses, corruption: 

Lebanon crippled by economic crisis, corruption

People in Lebanon are angry at 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 continued corruption.

“What led us to this situation is the state’s failure to resolve this economic crisis and the banks’ and Central Bank’s actions, where people can only retrieve some of their own money as if it’s a weekly allowance,” said Abou Zour, who is a lawyer with the advocacy group Depositors’ Union.

“This has led to people taking matters into their own hands,” she said. 

In January, a coffee shop owner withdrew $50,000 US trapped in a bank in Lebanon after taking employees hostage and threatening to kill them.

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