Bomb attack on Lebanese bank causes unease, but not for everyone

Branch in Saida was one of two hit on Saturday as anti-bank sentiment increases

Explosive lobbed at Lebanon bank amid currency crisis

Explosive lobbed at Lebanon bank amid currency crisis
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Two banks in south Lebanon were damaged in separate attacks on Saturday evening, one with a homemade bomb and another with Molotov cocktails, amid public anger over the financial crisis.

A blast damaged the facade and roof of a Fransabank branch in Saida, hours before men setting fire to a Credit Libanais building in Tyre with Molotov cocktails, the state-run National News Agency reported.

A security source in Beirut said investigations were continuing. There were no casualties.

Local media reported a group calling itself the “Tribunal of the Armed Revolution” claimed responsibility for the attack in Saida.

But protest groups affiliated with the anti-government movement that started in October last year quickly denied any link to the attacks.

“We always promote peaceful demonstrations," protester Ali Baroudi said. "We have never held a bomb or a weapon."

Mr Baroudi said he feared the attacks could be the start of a dangerous escalation.

“What happened yesterday is a game changer," he said. "If people start copying this all over Lebanon, then we have a problem.

“If that happens, we’ll get a series of bombs and let’s not forget that Lebanon is all too familiar with this."

Mr Baroudi was referring to high-profile killings in Lebanon, about the time prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing in 2005.

“Bombings cause confusion and in confusion people do crazy things,” he said.

A member of a self-proclaimed Marxist group that was also active in protests demanding the nationalisation of banks, reacted angrily to questions about the attacks.

“Even if I knew who was behind the legitimate attacks on banks I wouldn’t tell you," he wrote on WhatsApp.

"Probing about attacks on banks is dangerous since it makes the people you question suspects in the attacks."

Other activists said that while they were unsure about the identity of the “Tribunal”, they were not surprised by the violence.

“After banks stopped letting people access their money or life savings, this was bound to happen at some point,” said Abed Fleifel, a student activist in Beirut.

The protest movement started when people began to feel the effects of the drain in US dollar reserves caused by the financial crisis.

There have since been sporadic acts of vandalism against banks but Saturday’s bomb attack was a first.

Banks caused outrage when they closed in the first two weeks of protests and then imposed limits on withdrawals in dollars, which were widely used alongside the Lebanese pound.

Before that, only traders needing large amounts of dollars had complained of cash restrictions.

Neither the banks nor public officials mentioned a cash crunch to the public.

The protests abated in late January after a new government was sworn in, but the financial situation worsened as inflation soared and the value of the local currency dropped on the grey market.

After the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in late February, banks reportedly stopped dollar withdrawals altogether.

The Lebanese now have access only to the local currency, which has lost over half of its value.

The banks’ measures were not approved by Parliament or the government, which meant they were technically illegal.

But few officials criticised them as the banking sector is considered a pillar of the economy.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab publicly criticised the central bank’s management of the cash crisis for the first time last week.

There are increasing calls for its governor, Riad Salameh, to resign.

The frustration with banks explains why some people praised the attacks on Saturday.

“We celebrated revolutionaries who started a serious march towards liberating their country from the hands of tyrants who plundered their goods,” said Rita Choukeir, an activist in Tyre.

“There were no casualties at all because the revolutionaries deliberately targeted banks at night to not cause harm. Their aim was only to cause material damage."

Others shied away from the topic, hinting at their disgust.

“I prefer not to comment on barbaric actions,” said a doctor in Saida.

The last bomb attack against a bank in Lebanon was in June 2016. It also happened at night, causing damage but no casualties. But the context was then.

Nobody claimed responsibility but the incident was widely considered to be part of escalating tensions between the US and Hezbollah.