Woman with toy gun grabs trapped savings from Beirut bank

BEIRUT (AP) — A woman with activists and what she said was a toy pistol was trapped in a Beirut bank branch on Wednesday, taking $13,000 from her stranded savings.

Sali Hafeez told local al-Jadeed TV that she needed money for her sister’s cancer treatment. She said she repeatedly went to the bank to ask for her money and was told that she could only receive $200 a month in Lebanese pounds. Hafiz said that the toy pistol belonged to his nephew.

“I begged the branch manager earlier for my money, and I told him that my sister was dying, I didn’t have much time left,” she said in the interview. “I reached a point where I had nothing more to lose.”

Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals since 2019, halting the savings of millions. Nearly three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the small Mediterranean country’s economy continues to grow.

Hafeez and activists of a group called the Jout of Depositors entered the BLOM Bank branch and barged into the manager’s office. He forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.

Hafeez said that he had a total of $20,000 in his savings stuck in that bank. She said she has already sold a lot of her personal belongings and is considering selling her kidney to help her 23-year-old sister’s cancer treatment.

Nadine Nakhal, a customer of the bank, said the intruders “poured petrol everywhere, took out a lighter and threatened to burn it.” He said that the woman with the pistol threatened to shoot the manager if she did not take the money.

Hafiz said in a live-streamed video posted on his Facebook account that he did not intend to cause harm. “I didn’t break the bank to kill anyone or set that place on fire,” she said. “I’m here to get my right.”

Hafiz was celebrated as a hero on social media in Lebanon, as many in the small crisis-ridden country struggled to make ends meet and recoup their savings. He encouraged others to take similar action to recover their savings.

Some workers entered the bank with Hafiz, while others staged a sit-in at the entrance. Witnesses said Hafeez eventually left with cash in a plastic bag.

Security forces standing outside arrested several activists, including a man with what appeared to be a handgun. It was not immediately clear whether this was also a toy gun.

Meanwhile, Ala Khorchid, the head of the Depositors’ Anger protest group, said a person communicating and coordinating with the group barged into a bank in the hill town of Ale to retrieve his stuck savings. Local media reported that the man entered the BankMade branch alone with a shotgun without any shells, but was unable to retrieve his savings before being caught.

Both incidents occurred weeks after a food delivery driver ransacked another bank branch in Beirut and held 10 people hostage for seven hours while demanding tens of thousands of dollars in their trapped savings. Most respected him as a hero.

“There is no government, no economic recovery plan, and very little reserves left,” Khorchid told the AP, adding that people have no choice but to “take matters into their own hands”.

“These men worked for decades, but not to build palaces for the rulers, while they could not afford a bottle of medicine.”

On Wednesday night, activists blocked a major road outside a police barracks in Beirut, following two workers who stormed the bank with Hafiz earlier in the day. The protesters demanded the immediate release of both the youths.

Lebanon has scrambled to implement significant reforms to its crumbling banking sector and economy for more than two years. It has so far failed to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a recovery program that would unlock billions of dollars in international debt and help make the country viable again. Its government has struggled to function in a caretaker capacity since May, and its recently elected parliament is deeply divided.

Meanwhile, lakhs of people are struggling to cope with severe power cuts and rising inflation.

“We need to put a stop to everything that is happening to us in this country,” Nakhal said. “Everyone’s money is stuck in banks, and in this case, it is someone who is sick. We need to find a solution.”

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