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$39m Belfast bank robbers hunted
Thousands were on the streets at the time of the robbery.
Northern Ireland
Crime, Law and Justice

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Police are stepping up the hunt for up to 20 raiders who pulled off one of the world's biggest bank robberies in Northern Ireland.

An armed gang stole more than $39 million from Belfast's Northern Bank.

Police believe the robbers may have had inside information, as well as paramilitary help, in view of the military precision employed in the raid on the Donegall Square West bank.

On Sunday night, gang members went to the homes of two senior Northern Bank officials in Dunmurry, near south Belfast, and Loughinisland, Co Down.

With their families held hostage, the men went to work on Monday morning with instructions to behave normally.

It was at the close of business on Monday that the operation to empty the cash vaults of the distribution center was launched.

At least one truck nosed its way down a narrow side entrance on Wellington Street, just off Donegall Square West, opposite City Hall.

Thousands were on the streets at the time, and detectives are looking for anyone who might have spotted some sort of activity.

CCTV footage has also been studied in a bid to trace the movements of the getaway van, which turned left into Queen Street and then took a sharp right towards the M1 leading out of the city.

The scale of the robbery stunned police chiefs who head a major offensive against organized crime in Northern Ireland, which is worth an estimated $1 billion a year.

Assistant chief constable Sam Kinkaid, who is leading the hunt, told the UK Press Association a bank audit had yet to establish exactly how much was taken.

He said: "This was not a lucky crime, this was a well-organized crime."

Most of the money stolen was in Northern Bank notes, and virtually all the rest was in sterling printed by other banks in Northern Ireland, which will make it next to impossible to shift in any sizeable quantities elsewhere in the UK or Irish Republic.

A vehicle which may have been used in the raid was found burnt out and police were examining the vehicle on Wednesday.

According to sources in the area, a female hostage was left in the forest on Monday night. She is believed to have walked barefoot to a house for help, and was later suffering from exposure as a result of her ordeal.

SDLP Down District Councillor Eamonn O'Neill expressed concern that criminals from the South Down area may have been involved in the raid.

"It's a dreadful thing for people to be held hostage for such a length of time and to suffer the torture they went through," O'Neill said.

"I'm very alarmed that there might be local involvement because of the Drumkeeragh Forest area being used as a drop-off point for the car and one of the hostages.".

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