Five Lebanese banks were stormed on Friday by savers seeking to free frozen savings, the latest in a series of such “robberies” in the crisis-stricken country that has 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 “depositor robberies” in the past week, leading lenders to announce a three-day shutdown starting Monday.
As the incidents snowballed on Friday, Home Secretary Bassam Mawlawi called for an emergency meeting in the afternoon.
“Reclaiming rights in this way… could break the system and cause the rest of the depositors to lose their rights,” he told reporters after the meeting.
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 copy attacks by angry depositors.
On Friday, there were three more such incidents in Beirut and two in southern Lebanon, AFP correspondents and a security source said.
In one case, a man with a gun and fuel canister demanded that staff at a branch of Byblos bank in the southern city of Ghaziyeh hand over his money.
Accompanied by his son, he 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 AFP 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.
– No ‘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 a store owner had demanded access to his stalled savings to pay off debt.
He was locked up in the bank along with police officers, witnesses at the scene told AFP, 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 AFP photographer at the scene.
The wave 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 been charged for cancer treatment.
The woman identified as Sali Hafiz ran off with about $13,000 and immediately became a social media hero.
“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.
“The thieves are the banks, the government and all the rich people who protect them,” she added.
– Emergency meeting –
The severity of the crisis in Lebanon has been widely attributed to a selfish political elite and decades of corruption.
The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market in recent years, 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.
A parliament session to approve the 2022 budget, a major reform Lebanon needs to free up billions of dollars from international lenders, was adjourned until Sept. 26 on Friday after the quorum was lost when some lawmakers walked out.
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.
The raids of recent weeks are seen by Lebanese savers with no criminal record as mostly acts of desperation, sparking sympathy from the country’s main savers’ association.
“We call on any depositor who refuses injustice, oppression and theft to support any depositor who asks for what is rightfully his,” association member Tala Khalil told AFP.