In Lebanon, armed customers rob banks to get their own money

Two apparently armed and desperate Lebanese depositors held up banks on Wednesday to force access to their own money, which has been blocked during a national financial meltdown.

A woman with a gun and some associates briefly held a BLOM Bank branch in the capital Beirut hostage before making off with more than $13,000 in cash from her account, a depositors’ group source said.

A short time later, in the mountain town of Aley, an armed man entered a Bankmed branch and took some of his savings before surrendering to authorities, Depositors Outcry and a security source said.

Lebanon’s 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 the basics.

In a phenomenon that illustrates the situation, Wednesday’s hold-up came after a man last month held up another Beirut bank to withdraw money to treat his ailing father.

BLOM Bank said a customer and accomplice came with a gun, threatened to set people on fire and forced the branch manager and cashier to retrieve money from a safe.

Before going into hiding, the woman, Sali Hafiz, told local news channel Al Jadeed TV that the gun was a toy and that she needed the money for her sister’s cancer treatment.

“I have nothing more to lose, I came to the end of the road,” she said, saying that a visit to the bank manager two days earlier had not provided a sufficient solution.

“I got to the point where I had to sell my kidney so my sister could get treatment.”

BLOM confirmed that the customer had come in to ask her for money for her sister’s treatment, and said she was offered full cooperation and asked to provide documentation.

“All we have is this money in the bank. My daughter was forced to take this money – it’s her right, it’s in her account – to treat her sister, her mother Hiam Hafiz told local TV.

Authorities did not immediately comment on the incidents.

Bankmed has not commented on its branch shutdown.

After last month’s holdup, which also involved hostages, the accused perpetrator was arrested but later released without charge after the bank dropped the lawsuit.

A senior Lebanese banker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was a worrying precedent,

“I think this is an invitation for other people to do the same. As long as people get away with it, they will continue. What a failed state, said the banker.

Banks say they make exceptions for humanitarian cases including hospital treatment, but depositors say that rarely happens.

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