In what appears to be one of the biggest heists in British history, a gang of thieves made off with at least $39 million in cash from the vaults of a Northern Ireland bank swollen...

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LONDON — In what appears to be one of the biggest heists in British history, a gang of thieves made off with at least $39 million in cash from the vaults of a Northern Ireland bank swollen with pre-Christmas receipts, police said yesterday.

The planning and the military precision displayed in the robbery, which involved the abduction of families of two bank officials, led to speculation that the robbers might belong to one of the province’s paramilitary forces that are said to have transformed into criminal gangs.

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Late Sunday armed men burst into the homes of two senior Northern Bank executives and took their families as hostages to undisclosed locations, authorities reported.

According to accounts in Belfast, the hostage-takers forced the executives to go to work as normal Monday and, after the bank was closed, used them to gain access to the cash vaults.

The cash was taken away in a large truck that nosed its way into a narrow side street, yards from the City Hall plaza, known as Donegall Square. Belfast’s Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kinkaid said the bank executives’ families had been held hostage for about 24 hours and were traumatized by the experience.

Kinkaid said the amount taken might exceed $39 million.

As many as 20 gunmen were involved in the robbery, but it was too early to say if they were paramilitary fighters, Kinkaid said.

More than 200 organized criminal gangs are operating in the province of 1.5 million people. They are said to be involved in armed robbery, drug trafficking, prostitution and counterfeiting. In addition, at least some of these gangs have been linked to nationalist Catholic or loyalist Protestant political groups, whose paramilitary forces have been in a state of uneasy peace since a 1997 Irish Republican Army cease-fire.