Five bank robberies in one day as Lebanese demand back frozen savings

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Five Lebanese banks were stormed on Friday by savers seeking to unlock frozen savings, the latest in a series of “robberies” in the crisis-stricken country that have gained widespread public support.

Lebanon has been in an economic crisis for more than two years since the value of its currency began to plummet and banks began imposing draconian restrictions on withdrawals.

According to the Association of Banks in Lebanon, seven bank branches have been the target of “deposit theft” in the past week, prompting lenders to announce a three-day shutdown from Monday.

As the “robberies” snowballed on Friday, Home Secretary Bassam Mawlawi called for an emergency meeting in the afternoon.

The robbery of a bank in Beirut on Wednesday by an activist who filmed himself with a toy gun appears to have sparked a series of counterfeit attacks by people tired of not being able to withdraw their savings.

On Friday, there were three more such incidents in Beirut and two in southern Lebanon, TBEN correspondents and a security source said.

In one case, a man with a gun and a fuel canister demanded that staff at a branch of Byblos bank in the southern city of Ghaziyeh hand over their deposit.

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Accompanied by his son, the man in his 50s threatened bank staff with the gun, which a Lebanese television channel said could be a toy, before making his demand.

“He emptied a fuel canister on the floor,” a bank guard told an TBEN correspondent.

The man walked away with about $19,000 in cash but turned himself in to police moments later when a crowd formed in front of the bank to support him.

– Not a ‘bank robber’ –

A few hours later, a tense security situation developed around a branch of Blom Bank in the Tariq al-Jdideh neighborhood of Beirut, although details were unclear.

Witnesses outside the bank said an indebted shop owner had demanded access to his stalled savings.

He was locked up in the bank along with police officers, witnesses at the scene told TBEN, but he was believed to be unarmed.

Another man armed with a shotgun stormed into a bank in Beirut’s Ramlet el-Baida neighborhood on Friday, witnesses told an TBEN photographer at the scene.

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The spate of robberies comes two days after a young activist stormed a central bank in Beirut with fuel and a plastic gun to demand the deposits from her sister, who had to pay for cancer treatment.

The woman identified as Sali Hafiz ran off with about $13,000 and became an instant social media hero with a photo of her standing on a desk in the bank during the robbery that went viral on social media.

“She had every right to do this. I would do the same if I were as brave as her,” said Carla Chehab, a 28-year-old resident of Beirut.

“And don’t let anyone call her a bank robber. The thieves are the banks, the government and all the rich people who protect them,” she added.

Also on Wednesday, a man propped up a bank in the town of Aley northeast of Beirut, the official National News Agency reported.

– Emergency meeting –

The raids are usually seen as acts of desperation by Lebanese savers who have no criminal record and are trying to pay bills, with widespread support from the general public.

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Last month, a man gained widespread sympathy after he gunned down a bank in Beirut and held employees and customers hostage for hours, demanding part of his $200,000 in frozen savings to pay the hospital bills for his ailing father.

He was detained but quickly released and was present outside the bank in Tariq al-Jdideh on Friday to show his support.

Lebanon has been ravaged by one of the worst economic crises ever.

The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market, while poverty and unemployment have risen.

Banks have been widely accused of operating as a cartel and driving large sums of money out of the country for senior Lebanese officials at a time when foreign transfers were already blocked from ordinary citizens.

The country’s main savers’ association expressed its support for desperate bank customers.

“We call on any depositor who refuses injustice, oppression and theft to support any depositor who asks for what is rightfully theirs,” association member Tala Khalil told TBEN.