Robbers who carried out what is likely to have been the largest bank robbery in UK criminal history may have looted more than ?20 million (US$38.6 million) from high security vaults in Belfast, Northern Ireland, police said on Tuesday.
Staff at the Northern Bank, Belfast, were on Tuesday night attempting to calculate how much had gone missing after the families of two senior employees were held hostage for more than 24 hours. The haul may even have taken the gang by surprise.
The chief constable of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, later announced that the raid had been carried out by republican paramilitaries, but would not say which faction might have been behind it.
The carefully coordinated raid began at 10pm on Sunday when armed and masked members of the gang took over the executives' homes in Dumurry, on the outskirts of south Belfast, and Loughinisland, County Down, simultaneously. The families were driven to undisclosed locations in freezing conditions.
The men were ordered to go to work as normal on Monday at their offices beside Belfast city hall. They were told to go through their normal routine, chatting to colleagues as if nothing unusual had happened.
At closing time both executives allowed other members of the gang access to the building and led them to the underground vaults. Both men, terrified their families would be killed if they did not comply, needed to be present to open the doors to the vaults.
The cash was bundled out of the building into a waiting lorry. The driver, clutching a mobile telephone, may have sat waiting for several hours as the money was loaded up.
The gang's only error was not having sufficient transport to take away the entire haul. The alarm was not raised until 11:45pm on Monday. No one was injured but one of the kidnapped security-code holders was treated for hypothermia after being dumped in remote countryside.
"On the information ... from interviewing witnesses and people ... at the bank, the sum [taken] is quite considerable and may be in excess of ?20 million," said Sam Kinkaid, the assistant chief constable.
"It is far too early to say which particular organizations are involved in this," he said.
If evidence linking republican paramilitaries to the robbery emerged it would be a severe blow to the peace process. Ian Paisley junior, a DUP Policing Board member, said yesterday: "This indicates the kind of mafia society we live in in Northern Ireland."
The raiders probably timed the operation for Christmas, when large amounts of cash are deposited by businesses. The bank also takes in newly printed notes, and sorts them for cash machines, all of which were to be stocked before the Christmas period.
The fine line between paramilitary groups and criminal gangs has become increasingly blurred since the start of the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. The province has a reservoir of experienced gunmen who have been stood down from active operations and are at liberty to indulge in freelance operations.
One senior police source said last night: "The organization and the intelligence gathering required [for the Northern Bank robbery] has all the hallmarks of the Provisional IRA. This operation required great expertise and coordination, probably more than the loyalist gangs possess."
"In Northern Ireland there is basically little difference between the criminal gangs and the paramilitaries. Many of the terrorists just turned full time to crime when their ceasefires were declared and criminals cannot operate without the blessing of the paramilitaries who still have the firepower and capability to wipe them out," the source said.