BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Police raided properties Friday in two Irish Republican Army (search) strongholds of Belfast in search of the 22 million pounds (euro31.5 million, US$42.5 million) stolen this week from a bank's underground vault.
Among the properties searched was the home of Eddie Copeland (search), a prominent reputed IRA commander in Ardoyne, a hard-line Catholic enclave of north Belfast. Police confiscated four cell phones and his shoes — and even opened presents under his family's Christmas tree.
Scores of officers, many in white forensic overalls, also searched properties in Catholic west Belfast, the primary power base of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein (search) party. But they didn't report any immediate progress in their hunt for the gang responsible for Monday's raid on the Northern Bank headquarters — the world's biggest all-cash robbery in peacetime.
The geography of the raids suggested that the IRA — the most sophisticated of Northern Ireland's myriad illegal groups — tops the authorities' list of suspects.
The IRA — which has been observing a cease-fire since 1997 but remains active on several fronts, including criminal rackets — issued a statement Thursday denying it was involved.
Copeland, who has survived several assassination attempts, declared his innocence at the door of his Ardoyne home as police left without arresting him.
"They deliberately targeted me because they know I'm a republican in the area. It's politically motivated and they're trying to make out republicans were behind this robbery," Copeland said.
He said one of the officers even wisecracked to him: "I bet you thought days like this were over."
Police consider Copeland, 34, the IRA's top figure in Ardoyne and he has faced death threats from Protestant extremists for a decade.
His father was killed by the British army in disputed circumstances in 1971. His home has been repeatedly searched and he has been arrested on suspicion of committing numerous crimes — most recently in 2001, when he was charged with allegedly abducting and assaulting a local man — but never convicted.
A deranged British soldier shot Copeland twice outside his home in 1993 as IRA supporters gathered there to mourn a local IRA bomber who had accidentally killed himself and nine Protestant civilians, one of Belfast's worst atrocities. In 1996, Copeland suffered leg wounds when a small bomb detonated under his car outside his home.
Protestant politician David Trimble, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, identified Copeland as leader of the IRA unit responsible for the botched 1993 bombing, an accusation Copeland denies.
Meanwhile Friday, the 45-member detective team trying to track down the robbers circulated its first partial list of serial numbers for businesses to use to identify stolen cash. But the numbers covered just 1.5 million pounds' (euro2.2 million, US$2.9 million) worth of the total. Police urged the public to be wary of accepting any large amounts of Northern Bank-brand currency.
Money-laundering experts say the robbers will have a hard time using most of their stolen loot, because it's newly minted pound notes bearing the Northern Bank's own name. These notes, peculiar to this British territory, cannot be spent in large volumes without attracting particular attention.
And Northern Bank, reflecting growing public anxiety about using any crisp Northern Bank notes in their wallets, announced that anybody wanting to swap notes could come into the bank's 95 branches across Northern Ireland.
In a statement, the bank emphasized it would swap all Northern Bank-branded notes, even "any notes that are the proceeds of the robbery but which have been handled by ordinary members of the public in good faith."
The bank confirmed it also was discussing with police the possibility of withdrawing some or all of its most recently issued note designs in a bid to make it even harder for the thieves to launder the money locally.