Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 6 News List

UK police foil airport heist

AFP , LONDON

Police said on Monday that they foiled what could have been one of the biggest robberies in British history, when they arrested seven men attempting to snatch nearly £80 million (US$142 million) in gold and cash from a warehouse just outside London's Heathrow airport.

"The gold was [worth] 40 million," a senior London police spokesman said. "We believe the figure is in the region of 30 to 40 million in cash, so between 70 and 80 million in total."

The police said their officers were lying in wait when the would-be robbers rammed their way into the Swissport cargo warehouse in a van and threatened staff with "at least one firearm and other weapons including knives and cudgels."

"In preventing this attack, we have foiled what would have been one of the biggest robberies ever committed in the United Kingdom," deputy police superintendent Barry Phillips told the media.

"We believe that these men were part of an organized criminal enterprise," he said, adding that the attempted robbery had required a lot of planning and preparation.

One of eight robbers escaped.

Had it succeeded, the heist would have dwarfed the 1983 Brinks Mat robbery in which £26 million in gold was stolen from a warehouse at Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport.

It also would have rivaled the famous Great Train Robbery of 1963, in which £2.3 million was lifted from a mail train -- a sum that would be worth about £40 million today.

"History will show that this is just as significant an attempted robbery in the 21st century as the Great Train Robbery and Brinks Mat," said Phillips, who branded the suspects, all in their early 30s, as "career criminals."

"They knew where the gold bullion was located inside the premises and went straight for it," he said. "As the vehicle reversed through the shutters, that was the signal for the armed police to ... effect the arrests."

Around 100 police officers took part in the operation near Heathrow's passenger Terminal Four and the main airport cargo terminals.

No gunfire was exchanged, though police used special rounds to shoot out the tires of the van. The only man to escape got away by hijacking a nearby van.

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