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Friday February 3rd, 2023 2:52AM

Hostage standoff at Beirut bank ends with gunman's arrest

By The Associated Press
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BEIRUT (AP) — A gunman 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 of his money.

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

Hussein’s wife, Mariam Chehadi, who was standing outside, told reporters 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 outside during the standoff, chanting slogans against the Lebanese government and banks and hoping that the gunman would get his money. Some bystanders hailed him as a hero.

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

Hussein had $210,000 trapped in Federal Bank and had been struggling to withdraw his money to pay his father’s medical bills and other expenses, according to the family and others involved in the negotiations.

“My brother is not a scoundrel. He is a decent man. He takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others,” Hussein’s brother Atef, standing outside the bank, said during the standoff.

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

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

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% against the U.S. dollar.

“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 with the legal advocacy group the Depositors' Union and was among the protesters. “And this has led to people taking matters into their own hands.”

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

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