Lebanon hit with 5 bank holdups as desperate customers demand their own money

Five Lebanese banks were held up by depositors seeking access to their own money frozen in the banking system on Friday in a spiralling spate of holdups this week spurred by frustration over a financial implosion with no end in sight.

Lebanon's banks association announced a 3-day closure next week over security concerns

A man identified as Abed Soubra gestures from inside the BLOM bank on Friday in Beirut's Tariq al-Jdideh neighbourhood. There were at least three tense incidents at banks in the country on Friday reportedly involving people looking to access their savings. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Five Lebanese banks were held up by depositors seeking access to their own money frozen in the banking system on Friday in a spiralling spate of holdups this week spurred by frustration over a financial implosion with no end in sight.

A total of seven banks have been held up since Wednesday in Lebanon, where commercial banks have locked most depositors out of their savings since an economic crisis took hold three years ago, leaving much of the population unable to pay for basics.

On Friday morning, an armed man identified as Abed Soubra entered BLOM Bank in the capital's Tariq Jdideh neighborhood and demanded his deposit, the bank told Reuters.

He was still locked in the branch hours later, telling Reuters by phone that he had handed over his gun to security forces and just wanted his money.

"I'll stay here three, four, five days — I won't move until I get my deposit," he said.

'What do you want them to do?'

Soubra said he had refused an offer by the bank to take a portion of his $300,000 US savings in the deteriorating local Lebanese currency.

"I deposited by money in dollars, I want them back in dollars," he said.

Soubra was cheered on by a large crowd of people gathered outside, including Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, who carried out the very first holdup in August to get his own deposits from his bank, which dropped charges against him.

Protestors shout slogans on Friday as they sit outside an LGB Bank branch which was held up by a depositor seeking access to his own savings, according to a bank employee, in the Ramlet al-Bayda area in Beirut. (Mohammed Azakir/Reuters)

"We're going to keep seeing this happen as long as people have money inside. What do you want them to do? They don't have another solution," said Hussein, who got around $30,000 from his savings of $200,000.

Lebanon's banks association announced a three-day closure next week over mounting security concerns and called on the government to pass necessary laws to deal with the crisis. The association a day earlier urged authorities to hold accountable those engaging in "verbal and physical attacks" on banks and said lenders themselves would not be lenient.

Local currency decimated

Authorities have been slow to pass reforms that would grant them access to $3 billion US from the International Monetary Fund to ease the crisis.

Lebanon's parliament on Friday suspended talks on the 2022 budget after a walk-out by lawmakers sent attendance below quorum, further delaying efforts to complete requirements to access IMF funds to help relieve the crisis. The session was described as "chaotic" by one lawmaker who spoke to Reuters.

Speaker Nabih Berri scheduled the next session for Sept. 26, following the return of Prime Minister Najib Mikati from trips to London for Queen Elizabeth's funeral and New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard outside an LGB Bank branch in Beirut where a holdup was said to be taking place. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Among the laws-in-waiting is a capital controls law, still being debated by parliament. In its absence, banks have imposed unilateral limits on most depositors, allowing them to retrieve limited amounts each week in U.S. dollars or Lebanese pounds.

Withdrawals in Lebanese pounds are worth less and less, as the lira has lost more than 95 per cent of its value since 2019 and edged toward a new low of around 38,000 to the U.S. dollar this week.

Banks say they allow exceptional withdrawals for humanitarian cases including health-care payments but depositors say the banks have not stuck to their word.

In Friday's first case, a man was able to retrieve a portion of his funds from the Ghazieh branch of Byblos Bank, south of Beirut, before being arrested, the source said, adding that the weapon in his possession was believed to be a toy.

Byblos Bank could not immediately be reached for comment.

WATCH l Tense hostage standoff in Beirut bank ends without injuries (Aug. 11):

Hostage standoff at Beirut bank ends with suspect's arrest, no injuries

7 months ago
Duration 3:01
A hostage standoff in which an armed man demanded a Beirut bank let him withdraw his savings has ended with the man's surrender and no injuries. Authorities said the man had a canister of gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to take out his money.

Another incident saw a man with a pellet gun enter a branch of LGB Bank in Beirut's Ramlet al-Bayda area seeking to withdraw some $50,000 dollars in savings, a bank employee said.

Then, Mohammad al-Moussawi threatened the Banque Libano-Francaise bank in Beirut with a fake gun and managed to get $20,000 in cash out of his account, he said by phone.

"This banking system is tricking us and it's worth my shoe," he said, telling Reuters he would be going into hiding.

BLF Bank told Reuters the incident "took five minutes" and that no employees were harmed.

The fifth incident on Friday afternoon saw a man fire shots inside a branch of BankMed in Chehime as he sought access to his own savings, an industry source told Reuters. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Friday's incidents followed two others in the capital of Beirut and in the town of Aley on Wednesday in which depositors were able to access a portion of their funds by force, using toy pistols mistaken for real weapons.