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Lebanon: Hostages freed as gunman leaves bank and surrenders to security forces

Bassam Sheikh Hussein, 42, took six people hostage in Beirut's Hamra demanding his assets be unfrozen
A man who security sources said was armed and demanding the return of his bank deposits is seen through the door of the Federal Bank of Lebanon in Hamra (Reuters)

An armed man who held up a branch of the Federal Bank Lebanon in west Beirut's Hamra Street, surrendered to security forces on Thursday evening after nearly seven hours of negotiations.

Bassam Sheikh Hussein, 42, had taken six people hostage demanding his assets be unfrozen.

Lebanese media reported that Hussein fired three warning shots as he overtook the bank branch around 11am and threatened to set the bank on fire using incendiary material.

Hussein handed himself to Lebanese security forces after a tense standoff that veered from violent threats to a local restaurant delivering food to the bank for free. All hostages were released in good condition.

The 42-year-old agreed to leave the bank after being promised $35,000 to pay for the treatment his father needs.

Eyewitnesses told Middle East Eye that Hussein poured gasoline on some of the bank's employees, threatening to set them on fire if they did not hand him his frozen cash deposits.

While held hostage, one of the employees told MEE in a phone call that Hussein was refusing to end the siege before getting his money.

"I cannot begin to describe the scene, one will only have to imagine it," he said, wishing to remain anonymous due to concerns for his safety.

A friend of Hussein told MEE, on condition of anonymity, that he decided to hold up the bank after all his attempts to retrieve his money were unsuccessful.

'I cannot begin to describe the scene, one will only have to imagine it'

- Hostage

"A while ago, his father had to be hospitalised, and he had to beg for money to pay the medical bills. It seems that was the breaking point," his friend said.

A security official told MEE that a negotiation team had difficulty initially reaching Hussein to resolve the situation. MEE also tried to reach Hussein on his mobile phone, but it was turned off.

Six bank employees and one customer were held by Hussein.

MEE learned that Hussein allowed one employee to use their phone to contact the outside world and ask the bank to unfreeze and hand him his deposits.

He later communicated directly with a Lebanese security forces negotiator by phone.

After 5pm local time, security forces allowed a meal for eight people to be delivered from the T-marbouta restaurant to the hostages. It included skewered chicken, minced kebab, spicey potatoes, fattoush and tabouleh salads, and ayran yoghurt drinks.

'Dangerous sign'

Nizar Ghanem, from the Depositors Union, told MEE: "what we are seeing now is citizens taking their right with their own hands and this is a very dangerous sign".

"The judiciary system and political powers should be held responsible for this event," he added.

Since the Lebanese economy crashed in 2019, dollar deposits in local bank accounts have been frozen. Meanwhile, the lira has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

Last week, the World Bank released a scathing report on the Lebanese economic crisis, blaming the country's oligarchs and bankers for operating a Ponzi scheme that "caused unprecedented social and economic pain".

Ghanem said that since 2019 the political establishment has failed to hold banks accountable and instead set up a financial plan that "only harmed the small and medium depositors and benefited the banks' owners and the elite of the country to smuggle their money outside the country".

"The depositors were not able to revert to the judicial system to get their rights as most of the judges are politically appointed and obey orders, which leaves citizens with only might makes right," he added.

Hussein, who appeared on video footage walking into the bank carrying a gun, demanded his frozen deposits, which reportedly amount to almost $209,000. He was heard angrily shouting at a bank employee and saying, "give me my money" several times. 

The area around the bank was cordoned off by police and the military.

In January, a Lebanese man raided a branch of BBAC bank in Joub Jannine in the Beqaa Valley, west of Beruit, and walked out with his $50,000 frozen assets after four hours of negotiations with security forces.

Abdullah al-Saei had held the bank employees hostages and threatened to burn himself and the branch if employees did not hand him his cash.

However, hours later, Lebanese authorities seized the money pending further criminal investigations.