Depositors stormed five Lebanese banks on Friday, seeking to release frozen savings, the latest in a series of “robberies” in the crisis-stricken country that has won broad popular support.
Lebanon has been in an economic crisis for more than two years, since the value of its currency began to decline and banks began to impose strict limits on withdrawals.
Last week, seven bank branches were targeted by “depositor theft,” prompting lenders to announce a three-day closure starting Monday, according to the Association of Banks in Lebanon.
With the escalation of “robberies” on Friday, Interior Minister Bassam al-Mawlawi called an emergency meeting in the afternoon.
It appears that the detention of a bank in Beirut by a self-portrait activist using a toy gun has sparked a series of copycat raids by people tired of not being able to withdraw their savings.
AFP correspondents and a security source said three similar incidents occurred Friday in Beirut and two in southern Lebanon.
In one case, a man with a pistol and a fuel container asked employees at a Byblos Bank branch in the southern city of Ghazieh to hand over his deposit.
Accompanied by his son, the man in his fifties threatened bank employees with the gun, which a Lebanese TV channel said may have been a toy, before asking him to.
Read also: Armed agent holds Banque du Liban employees hostage to gain access to savings
“He emptied a can of fuel on the floor,” a bank guard told an AFP reporter.
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, in Beirut’s Tareq al-Jadida neighborhood, a tense security situation arose around a branch of Blom Bank, although the details were not clear.
Witnesses outside the bank said an indebted shop owner demanded access to his withheld savings.
Eyewitnesses told AFP at the scene that he was locked inside the bank with police officers, but that he was believed to be unarmed.
Witnesses told an AFP photographer at the scene that another man armed with a hunting rifle stormed a bank in Beirut’s Ramlet al-Baida neighborhood on Friday.
The string of thefts comes two days after a young activist stormed a central bank in Beirut with fuel and a plastic gun to demand deposits from her sister who needed to pay for cancer treatment.
The woman, identified as Sally Hafez, earned around $13,000 and became an instant hero on social media with a photo of her standing at a desk inside the bank during the raid, which went viral on social media.
“She had every right to do it. I would have done the same if I was as brave as her,” said Carla Chehab, 28, from Beirut.
“And don’t let anyone call her a bank robber. The thieves are the banks and the government and all the rich people are protecting them,” she added.
On Wednesday, the official National News Agency reported that a man detained a bank in the city of Aley, northeast of Beirut.
– urgent meeting –
The raids are seen as acts of desperation by Lebanese depositors who have no criminal records and are trying to settle bills, gaining broad support from the general public.
Last month, a man won widespread sympathy after he stormed a Beirut bank with a gun and held employees and customers hostage for hours, to demand some of his $200,000 frozen savings to pay hospital bills for his ailing father.
He was arrested but was quickly released and was present Friday outside the bank in Tariq Al Jadida to express his support.
Lebanon suffered its worst economic crisis ever.
Its currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market, while poverty and unemployment rates have risen.
Banks have been widely accused of operating like a cartel and of taking large sums of money out of the country for senior Lebanese officials at a time when foreign transfers were already off-limits to ordinary citizens.
The country’s main depositors’ association has expressed its support for desperate bank clients.
“We call on every depositor who rejects injustice, oppression and theft to support any depositor who asks for his right,” association member Tala Khalil told AFP.