Syrian banks face gangs and robbery as they transport cash to Damascus

Risk of theft high as banks physically remove deposits from branches in "hot spot" areas and transport the cash to the relatively safer confines of Damascus.

A view of a destroyed Syrian Commercial Bank branch after clashes between the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, at Marat al-Numan, near the northern province of Idlib October 12, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout (SYRIA - Tags: BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Syrian banks are risking robbery and theft as they physically remove deposits from branches in "hot spot" areas and transport the cash to the relatively safer confines of Damascus.

The number of branches operating outside the capital is dwindling, denying the population access to banking services as the violent uprising against Bashar Al Assad further erodes the country's financial sector.

"This is happening across the board. Banks are moving their balances from places like Homs, Deir Al Zor and Aleppo - all the hot spots - to their head offices in Damascus. There have been a lot of incidents of robbery and looting in those areas as the strife gets worse every day," said a source at the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE).

Nassib Ghobril, the chief economist at Byblos Bank in Beirut, said there were "very few branches in the cities and towns outside of Damascus, so when a bank closes its branches and moves its money to the centre, it prevents clients from accessing a bank in that location. They are on a risk-management mode - trying to manage the risks of the current situation in Syria, where they are dealing with a big conflict on the ground."

There is also a real threat of money going missing as institutions shift cash around the country.

"Bank Al Sham moved its deposit base in Homs to Damascus," said the DSE source. "But upon arrival they found a decent sum was missing. Unfortunately on the roads leading the capital there are checkpoints controlled by certain gangs, and you have to pay them off to make sure that the bulk of it actually makes it to Damascus."

And Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BBSF) said that "in light of the current environment", it had transferred its assets to its headquarters in Damascus from the restive Deir Al Zor.

Upon arrival, it appeared that 7.3 million Syrian pounds (Dh377,649) and US$182,198 (Dh669,167) were missing, the lender said.

The foreign-backed lender, whose major shareholder is Saudi Arabia's fourth-biggest bank by market capitalisation, did not provide further information on the cause behind the missing cash.

As Syria descends into chaos, businesses across the country are reporting a rapid rise in theft, armed robbery and looting.

In September, BBSF said it had incurred losses from fraud and forgery totalling 25m pounds. Syria International Islamic Bank, the largest shareholder of which is Qatar International Islamic Bank, in the same month said it had been targeted in a Homs robbery of 75.2m pounds.

Rising crime is not the only challenge. The stock market says it only has enough fuel to run its generators for two more weeks, leaving much uncertainty in its ability to continue operations, after Damascus and its southern suburbs were affected by a power outage after an attack on the city's main power line.

"There hasn't been electricity since [Sunday] night," said the DSE source. "The good thing is we don't have a trading session on Thursday, while Friday and Saturday is a weekend, so we will be able to preserve some of our stockpile. But fuel has become difficult to obtain and transportation of it is even harder. It's becoming a big risk for us. If anything happens, we won't be able to have a secondary backup."

Syria's state news agency Sana quoted the electricity minister Imad Khamis, who said the power cut was caused by an "attack on a main electricity cable" and that authorities were working to restore service.

There are 20 stocks listed on the DSE, 12 of which are banks, with the rest from the insurance, services, industrial and agriculture sectors.

"We know the private banks had been trying to expand their branch networks before the crisis. But when the conflict started, they stopped," Mr Ghobril said. "Syria's banking sector has been affected from the beginning and continues to be affected. It feels directly, and in a much bigger proportion the change in stability and deterioration in conditions,"

Trading on the DSE has almost halted in recent months as violence escalated in the capital and other cities across Syria. But exchange officials say they remain committed to offering investors a place to trade their holdings.

The DSE General Index has lost more than half of its value since the uprising began. It traded at 1,523.14 points on March 15, 2011, the start of the uprising, and has since fallen to 784.37

The IMF has not provided figures on the Syrian economy since the start of violence.