In Ireland, Police Foil Attempted Cash Transit Robbery

Belfast's Cathedral Quarter resembled something out of a US crime drama yesterday as armed police combed the usually sedate streets in their hunt for a gang of robbers.

Police said they foiled a cash robbery in a major "proactive operation" at Waring Street shortly after midday.

The narrow street is in the heart of the newly regenerated restaurant and bar district, at the heart of which is the five-star-pending Merchant Hotel - converted from a former bank.

The glitzy hotel recently hit the headlines for selling the world's most expensive cocktail - a Mai Tai cocktail priced at Ł750.

A security van delivering cash in the area appeared to be at the centre of the alert which saw armed police units fan out across the quarter - and at one point a car chase through narrow cobbled streets.

Events began to unfold at 12.20pm when a man approached the van, as it was parked by the hotel's entrance, and tried to steal money.

Four men - believed to be the man and three accomplices - were seen running from the area of the Merchant Hotel and one witness reportedly heard one of them shout "I've got the bag".

Within moments armed police units materialised in the surrounding streets and gave chase of the men who were making their escape in a red Peugeot car.

One man in the area at the time told friends the swoop by police was so instantaneous he could only conclude that they had been waiting in the area as part of an elaborate "sting".

However, police were last night remaining tight-lipped about the planning of the operation.

The ensuing police chase extended from Talbot Street at St Anne's Cathedral, along the cobbled Hill Street and onto Skipper Street which leads to High Street.

Shoppers and workers on their lunch breaks watched in amazement as the high-octane sequence of cops and robbers took place before their startled eyes.

A number of parked cars on Hill Street were damaged by the car which was later abandoned in lower North Street - the would-be robbers making off on foot in what are believed to have been separate directions.

There followed a frantic search for the men through North Street, Library Street, Little Donegall Street, Union Street and Donegall Street.

One innocent bystander said he had stepped outside a pub on Donegall Street to answer a call on his mobile telephone when he felt "a rifle at my back".

"My phone rang and I went outside to answer it and all of a sudden I was grabbed by the back and put up against the wall and a rifle was put to my back," Tony Craig from nearby New Lodge Road said.

"I asked what was going on and said I hadn't done anything."

After the officers checked out the 34-year-old's story he was allowed to go back into the bar.

Police were also seen arresting someone else in nearby Library Street - although last night they said no-one had been detained by officers.