BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) - Detectives in Northern Ireland arrested three men in connection with the December robbery of the Northern Bank in which thieves stole 26.5 million pounds - about euro39 million or US$47 million, authorities said Wednesday.
In the first arrests in relation to the robbery - one of the world's largest heists - a 30-year-old man was arrested Wednesday in Belfast, while two men were taken into custody Tuesday in Kilcoo, Northern Ireland.
The men arrested Tuesday were named in local media as Dominic McEvoy, a 23-year-old builder, and Peter Morgan, a 24-year-old plasterer and farm worker.
McEvoy and Morgan were arrested nearby to where a banker's family were held hostage by a gang ahead of the audacious record robbery.
Chief Constable Hugh Orde has accused the Irish Republican Army of stealing the money, but the outlawed organization has denied involvement.
Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked political party, and the family of McEvoy protested the arrests Wednesday, claiming they were politically motivated.
Willie Clarke, a Sinn Fein member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, described the arrests as "heavy-handed policing" and claimed the men were arrested because their families have supported the IRA's cause.
A senior police official denied political motivation, saying that officers had acted on tip-offs.
"We are where we are in no small part due to the support and information provided openly and anonymously by the community," said acting detective chief superintendent Phil Aiken, who is heading the police investigation.
McEvoy's mother Irene Carlin denied her son was involved in the robbery, or any other illegal activity. "We like a quiet life," Carlin said.
She also said she did not believe her son was aligned with the IRA.
"We are a republican family and we have our beliefs, but he wouldn't be as political as us. Absolutely not," Carlin said.
She said police had searched the home her son shared with herself, his stepfather and two younger sisters. They seized computers, discs, a passport, credit cards, bank statements, phone records and pay slips.
The alleged involvement of the IRA in December's robbery served as a setback for Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most of the province's Catholics, in negotiations over a power sharing agreement.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most of the territory's British Protestant majority, refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein while the IRA was seen to be involved in violent crime.
Since the robbery, the IRA has declared that it has disarmed and scrapped its hidden weapons stockpiles. A move that has raised hopes that negotiations to revive the major goal of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord - a joint Catholic-Protestant administration - could be resumed soon.
Police have said the operation behind the robbery involved months of planning. Gangs with inside knowledge of the Northern Bank's operations held hostage the families of two key bank employees, and forced them to empty the main cash vault after closing time.
The alarm was not raised until hours after the robbers' getaway, when the wife of one of the coerced bank workers stumbled out of a forest south of Belfast.
Most of the money taken in the robbery has never been traced. About 9 million pounds - about US$16 million or euro13 million - in cash found in the Republic of Ireland in February is believed to be proceeds of the robbery, while another 55,000 pounds - about US$97,000 or euro80,000 - found in a police sports club was confirmed as having been taken in the raid. Northern Ireland police said they believed that cash was planted in the club to discredit the investigation.
(c) 2005 Associated Press