The Globe and Mail

Police raid IRA strongholds in Belfast

Associated Press

Belfast — Police raided properties Friday in two Irish Republican Army strongholds of Belfast in search of the $42.5-million (U.S.) that was stolen this week from a bank's underground vault.

Among the properties searched was the home of Eddie Copeland, 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 party. But they did not report any 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 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 — denied Thursday that it was involved.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams complained to Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy about the searches in the Catholic neighbourhood, which he said were harmful to the already strained peace process. Northern Irish peace talks stalled earlier this month when the top Protestant party rejected IRA disarmament promises.

Outside one search site, in Belfast's Ballymurphy neighbourhood, protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers, injuring five, police said. Two of the injured officers needed hospital treatment, and one was knocked unconscious, police said.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Copeland said.

He said one of the officers even wisecracked to him: “I bet you thought days like this were over.”

Police consider Mr. 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 but never convicted.

A deranged British soldier shot Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Copeland as leader of the IRA unit responsible for the botched 1993 bombing, an accusation Mr. 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 identify stolen cash. But the numbers covered just $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 is 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 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 said 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.

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