BELFAST, Dec. 21 -- Thieves took hostage the families of two top bankers and forced the officials to help them steal more than $39 million from the vaults of a Belfast bank's main office, authorities said Tuesday.
Experts said Monday's raid on the Northern Bank was the biggest heist since 1987, when thieves made off with about $65 million in cash and other valuables from the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Center in west London.
Police arrived three hours after thieves had driven away from the Northern Bank after emptying its vaults of more than $39 million.
(Paul Mcerlane -- Reuters)
Police said the taking of hostages as a way to infiltrate a high-security target suggested a level of sophistication and perhaps involvement by Northern Ireland's rival outlawed groups, particularly the Irish Republican Army.
"This isn't a gang of Belfast criminals who just got together. It's more than that. This looks like a military operation with obvious connotations," said John O'Connor, a former commander of Scotland Yard's elite detective unit in London.
In neighboring Ireland, Justice Minister Michael McDowell said peace efforts in Northern Ireland could be hurt if police linked the raid to the IRA, which is known to have robbed banks in the past to finance operations.
Police didn't learn about the heist until three hours after the robbers had left in a truck filled with cash from underground vaults at the bank's downtown headquarters.
A police official said masked gunmen invaded the homes of two senior employees of Northern Bank late Sunday. Their families were held at gunpoint at undisclosed locations outdoors, where overnight temperatures were near freezing.
About 6 p.m. Monday, they said, the robbers began clearing out vaults packed with cash that was to be distributed to the bank's 95 branches and hundreds of automated teller machines across Northern Ireland.
The bank had not been able to provide an exact figure for the amount stolen, a police official said. Other security officials said the vaults held closer to $58 million because of the heavy cash needs of the Christmas holiday.