Bank robberies snowball in Lebanon as depositors demand their own money

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  • Five other depositors rob banks to access their money
  • Banks will announce a three-day closure for security reasons
  • Frustration with frozen savings, crisis spiral

BEIRUT, Sept 16 (Reuters) – Five Lebanese banks were blocked by depositors seeking access to their own money frozen in the banking system on Friday in a series of spiraling lockdowns this week, spurred by frustration over a financial implosion without end in sight.

A total of seven banks have been blocked since Wednesday in Lebanon, where commercial banks have frozen most depositors of their savings since an economic crisis set in three years ago, leaving much of the population unable to pay basic expenses.

On Friday morning, a gunman identified as Abed Soubra entered BLOM bank in the capital’s Tariq Jdideh district to demand his deposit, the bank told Reuters.

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

“I’ll be here three, four, five days – I won’t move until I get my bail,” he said.

Soubra said he was denied an offer from the bank to take some of his $300,000 in savings at a steep discount and in the deteriorating local Lebanese currency.

“I deposited 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 first-ever heist in August to get his own deposits from his bank, which has been charged against him .

“We’re going to keep seeing this happen as long as people have money inside. What do you want them to do? They have no other way,” said Hussein, who got about $30,000 from his savings of $200,000.

BANKS ARE WORTH MY SHOE

The Lebanese Banking Association announced a three-day shutdown next week due to growing security concerns and called on the government to pass the necessary laws to deal with the crisis.

The authorities have been slow to pass reforms that would give them access to $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund to ease the crisis.

Among the pending laws is a capital control law, still being debated in parliament. In its absence, banks imposed unilateral limits on most depositors, allowing them to withdraw limited amounts each week in US dollars or Lebanese pounds.

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

Banks say they allow exceptional withdrawals for humanitarian cases, including healthcare payments, but depositors say banks have not kept their word.

In the first case on Friday, a man was able to recover part of his funds from the Ghazieh branch of Byblos Bank (BYB.BY) before being arrested, the source said, adding that the gun in his possession was considered a toy.

Byblos Bank could not immediately be reached for comment.

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

Then Mohammad al-Moussawi threatened the Banque Libano-Française with a fake gun and managed to withdraw $20,000 in cash from its account, he said by phone.

“This banking system is cheating on us and it’s worth my shoe,” he said, telling Reuters he was going into hiding.

BLF Bank told Reuters the incident “took five minutes” and no employees were injured.

The fifth incident on Friday afternoon saw a man fire shots inside a BankMed branch as he sought to access his own savings, an industry source told Reuters.

The source said the man was a member of the Lebanese security forces and there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Friday’s incidents followed two others in the capital Beirut and the town of Aley on Wednesday in which depositors were able to forcibly access part of their funds, using toy guns mistaken for real weapons.

The Lebanese Banking Association on Thursday urged authorities to hold accountable those who engage in “verbal and physical attacks” on banks and said lenders themselves would not be lenient.

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Reporting by Timour Azhari, Laila Bassam and Issam Abdallah; Written by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Toby Chopra

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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