New Progress for Investigation of Ireland's Northern Bank Robbery

Belfast detectives arrested a 50-year-old man Friday on suspicion of involvement in the British-record robbery of Northern Bank, which authorities have blamed on the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Police didn't identify the suspect by name.

Police also confirmed Friday that they are continuing to interrogate Chris Ward, a key Northern Bank employee whose family was held hostage during the Dec. 20 robbery.

Ward, 24, was arrested Wednesday and would normally have had to be charged or released by Friday. But a Belfast judge gave permission, citing British anti-terrorist powers, for police to interrogate Ward for another three days if necessary.

On Dec. 19, armed gangs took hostage the families of two key Northern Bank employees, including Ward, and threatened to kill their hostages unless both men cooperated and raised no alarms. Ward and the other employee helped the gang load 26.5 million pounds (US$50 million, euro38 million) in two loads into a waiting van the next night.

The British and Irish governments, Northern Ireland police commanders, and an expert international commission all say the IRA committed the raid. The IRA denies involvement.

So far, three people have been charged and ordered held without bail in connection with the robbery investigation. None has been accused of actually carrying out the raid.

Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of Northern Ireland's police, says his detectives have accounted for about 5 million pounds (US$9.5 million, euro7.5 million) of the stolen cash.

Police in the neighboring Irish Republic seized about three-fifths of that total during raids in February on the homes and offices of people suspected of involvement in IRA money-laundering; the remaining two-fifths, police estimate, was burned before it could be seized during those raids.

Orde says the bulk of the missing money has been rendered worthless because the Northern Bank - which is allowed to print and distribute its own designs of British currency - withdrew its previous designs from circulation and issued new notes.

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