Police Make Arrests, Seize Millions Suspected Stolen from Irish Bank

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) - Police said Thursday they arrested seven people, including an official from the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, and seized millions in cash that they suspect was stolen from a Belfast bank, a crime that badly damaged Northern Ireland's peace process.

Police mounted several raids targeting Irish Republican Army money-laundering operations across the Republic of Ireland. They recovered at least 2.3 million pounds (euro3.4 million; US$4.4 million) from one house in the village of Farran, 10 miles (15 kms) west of the city of Cork in southwest Ireland, and arrested a self-employed financial consultant and his wife.

At another property in the Douglas suburb of Cork, police arrested a man and seized approximately 60,000 pounds (euro87,000; US$155,000) - all of it in notes produced by the Northern Bank, which was the target of the world's biggest bank robbery Dec. 20. Police also arrested a fourth man in a raid in the nearby town of Passage West but found no illicit cash there.

Police said the operation began Wednesday night, when they arrested three men at Dublin's Heuston train station.

Detectives had been trailing a suspected major money-launderer from Cork who, after he stepped off the train in Dublin, was allegedly caught delivering a suitcase containing euro94,000 (US$122,000) in laundered euro notes to two men from Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Police said a team of more than 100 detectives, including specialists from the national force's fraud squad and criminal assets section, had planned the raids for weeks in hopes of finding the 26.5 million pounds (euro38 million; US$50 million) stolen from Northern Bank.

And in a sign of the expanding scope of the operation, after nightfall Thursday police raided more properties in the midlands counties of Meath and Westmeath. Police reported no further arrests or cash seizures.

Police also surrounded several other unoccupied Cork-area homes, as well as at least one Cork business.

Police couldn't immediately confirm whether any of the seized money was stolen from the Northern Bank, but were particularly hopeful the money recovered in Douglas was.

Senior detectives from Northern Ireland's police force - who have failed so far to charge anyone with the bank robbery or recover any of the missing cash - planned to go to Irish police headquarters in Dublin on Friday to help examine the seized money and other evidence.

"This is a massive operation, and our top priority must be first and foremost to finish the searches at hand before we examine the cash itself in greater detail," said one southern Irish detective, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

He said officers would not begin comparing serial numbers on the seized cash with the records provided by Northern Ireland police until Friday. About two-thirds of the cash stolen from Northern Bank was newly printed notes bearing the bank's distinctive design.

Police, in keeping with usual practice, refused to identify any of the arrested people by name. Under Irish law, all seven can be interrogated without charge until Friday night or Saturday morning.

Sinn Fein officials continued Thursday to deny any involvement by the IRA or their own party in the Northern Bank heist. In a statement, the party said the public should not "rush to judgment" but should "exercise caution ... and allow the truth to come out."

But the British and Irish governments and all other political parties in both parts of Ireland have blamed the IRA, which is Ireland's most proficient robber of banks.

The operation involved months of planning. Gangs with inside knowledge of the Northern Bank's operations held hostage the families of two key security employees of the bank, and forced them to empty the main cash vault after closing time. The alarm wasn't 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.

Spokesmen for the police forces in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland cautioned that, while the Northern Bank raid was the focus for the raids, at least some money seized could be from other IRA rackets.

The modern IRA, founded in December 1969 in Northern Ireland, for decades has run an ever-expanding range of criminal enterprises, including robbery and smuggling fuel and cigarettes. Anti-racketeering authorities estimate that the IRA generates at least 7 million pounds (euro10 million; US$13 million) in illicit revenues annually.