Saturday, February 25, 2006

Police arrest two but cash may already be overseas and far away

By Steve Bird, Will Pavia and Stewart Tendler

DETECTIVES hunting the armed gang responsible for stealing up to £50million in Britain’s biggest cash robbery have arrested two people, police confirmed last night.

Senior officers described the arrests for conspiracy to commit robbery as “a significant breakthrough”. The suspects, a man aged 29 and a woman aged 31, were arrested separately in South London. The arrests came hours after insurers offered Britain’s biggest reward of £2 million.

Last night the couple, who have not been named, were being held at police stations in Kent as police searched two addresses in Forest Hill, South London.

Adrian Leppard, the assistant chief constable of Kent, said: “These arrests show our commitment to bring the members of this criminal gang to justice.” Mr Leppard said that the arrests were very positive and directly related to the investigation.

The woman was arrested as she tried to open a building society account with bundles of used notes wrapped with tape marked Tonbridge.

It is understood that the woman walked into the Portman Building Society in Bromley, Kent, and said that she wanted to make a large deposit. Staff, noticing that the £6,000 was bound with tape marked Tonbridge, kept her talking while they phoned the police.

Mr Leppard said that police had also discovered a red former Parcel Force van that might have been used during the kidnapping of the wife of the manager of the Securitas cash depot.

The van was abandoned in a car park at the Hook and Hatchet pub at Hucking, near Maidstone, but was linked to the raid only after police had interviewed the woman.

Timothy Clark, 44, the pub landlord, said that he suspected that the vehicle had been involved in the raid. “We are the only building in the vicinity and we couldn’t understand why the vehicle had been abandoned,” he added. Last night police said that so far none of the cash had been recovered and that it could have been smuggled across the Channel hours after the raid.

Speaking at a press conference before the arrests, Mr Leppard, who is leading a team of 100 investigators, confirmed that police were looking at the possibility that the gang had fled across the Channel. Officers have already seized security camera footage and computer numberplate records of vehicles going through the Channel Tunnel and on the Dover ferries after the raid early on Wednesday morning.

Mr Leppard also confirmed that detectives were looking into the possibility that the gang had inside information for an operation that had been “executed with military precision”.

He said that detectives were keeping an open mind about an insider at Securitas, whose depot in Tonbridge, Kent, was the robbers’ target, but said that the gang must have carried out “extensive reconnaissance”. There are about 60 staff at the depot. A special group of officers will already have begun checking their background, lifestyles, relatives and friends for any suspicious links.

Police believe that the gang must have known that the depot would hold unusually large amounts of money after the January sales. They suspect that the leader may have decided to limit the haul so that their escape would not be delayed. Steel cages of cash were wheeled by raiders dressed in overalls and masks into a 7.5-tonne lorry before it was driven away. The lorry and three other vehicles used in the robbery have not been found.

Mr Leppard said that the loss “could be as high as forty or fifty million pounds”, but that the final figure would not be known until forensic scientists had finished their work and an audit had been completed.

Detectives disclosed yesterday the full extent of the ruthless tactics used by the robbers. Mr Leppard said that the gang were top-flight criminals and were “a serious organised criminal gang that is armed and extremely callous”. “They have taken hostage a young woman and her eight-year-old son and terrorised 14 members of staff. It was a meticulously planned operation and a lot of people were involved. If you are one of those people then please ring,” he said.

“This reward is being offered because we know that someone out there will have seen or heard information that could be vital to our investigation.

“It may be that people involved in crime know something and we would urge them to come forward. This is a significant reward that reflects the serious nature of this robbery.”

Colin Dixon, the manager who was forced to let the gang into the depot while his wife, Lynn, and his young son were held hostage, and the 14 staff who were seized, were still being questioned. Mr Leppard said that the boy had been traumatised by the ordeal.

Mr Dixon, who was threatened at gunpoint, was told that his child and wife would be “executed” unless he co-operated.

At 1am on Wednesday they were all taken to the depot, where the robbers, who were wearing balaclavas and paintball masks, tied up the staff and packed the cash into the lorry.

Police are in contact with their colleagues in Northern Ireland for advice on how they handled the raid on Northern Bank’s Belfast headquarters in 2004, in which £26.5 million cash was stolen.

Detectives have also appealed to the public for help in finding the manager’s silver Nissan Almera car, registration WP52 KPV, which they believe was left in the layby on the A249 near Stockbury and then removed by one of the gang. The disappearance of the vehicle raises the prospect that it has been burnt out to remove clues to the identity of the kidnappers. 02/2006

German Police Crack Alleged Missile Spy Ring

German police launched a nationwide raid against a suspected spy ring. One report links the suspects, who were interested in missile technology, with Iran.

The early morning raid on Thursday covered 12 locations across four German states, and netted an unspecified number of suspects, according to Germany's federal prosecutor.

"The accused are suspected of attempting, in the service of a foreign intelligence agency, to obtain parts for delivery systems and conventional weaponry for armed forces," the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Police would not say what foreign agency that might have been, but a source told the Reuters news agency that the country involved was Iran. Police were interrogating the suspects after raids in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland. Two men were arrested in Frankfurt, according to a police spokeswoman.

Second espionage case in a month

Prosecutors charged two German citizens last month with espionage for helping an unidentified intelligence agency acquire "dual-use" missile technology. The term is applied to technology that can be used for both conventional machines and weapons.

Germany, together with France and Great Britain, has been unsuccessfully negotiating for the end of Iran's nuclear program ambitions. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has not ruled out referring Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions -- a move advocated by the United States.

Russia is currently trying to broker a deal by which Iran would avoid the Security Council, but no longer have control over its uranium-enriching process.

Deutsche Welle 02/2006

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

German Money Transporter Accused of Embezzlement

Germany's largest money transport firm has filed for bankruptcy after allegedly embezzling millions of euros from customers. The move could lead to some empty ATMs, but stores aren't worried they'll run out of money.

Heros filed for bankruptcy for all its 23 units on Monday after police investigators announced they were investigating the Nordcash subsidiary for embezzling up to 300 million euros ($356.8 million) from customers including retail giants Metro group and Karstadt as well as banks.

Nordcash employees allegedly pocketed the money over a period of several years, using some for themselves as well as injecting it into Heros subsidiaries to keep the company going.

Heros handled about 50 percent of the German money transport market and moved about 600 million euros per day. The company employs around 3,000 people.

While banks and stores were moving quickly to shift transport to other companies, officials said that automatic teller machines (ATMs) could run out of money.

But a spokeswoman for the German Retailers Association said that she didn't expect the bankruptcy to have a major impact on business.

Deutsche Welle 02/2006

US Intelligence Allegedly Bugged German Agents in Iraq

A German newspaper has written that US intelligence services spied on two German agents who remained in Iraq during the US-led war in 2003.

Citing a confidential government paper, the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily said that reports from the two German Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) agents stationed in Baghdad to the services headquarters near Munich may have been intercepted by US sources using a satellite telephone.

The newspaper said that, in addition the two agents -- who are currently involved in a controversy over their exact role during the war to which then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was so vehemently opposed -- were "repeatedly pressed" to provide war intelligence from Baghdad to the US commando headquarters in Qatar. It added that the German agents refused to be drawn in, but that 25 of 125 BND reports were officially passed on to the US.

According to the paper, the Parliamentary Control Commission, which is charged with reviewing certain secret service activities, has all the information in the confidential report and will meet in Berlin on Wednesday to debate just how much of it should be made public.

That decision could cause the opposition Green party, which was the junior partner in Schröder's government, to rethink its objection to a parliamentary inquiry over the role of the BND during the war, the newspaper wrote. While the liberal FDP and the Left Party are both in favor of the inquiry, their votes are not enough to make it happen. A change of heart among the Greens could alter that.

Deutsche Welle 02/2006

Monday, February 20, 2006

The End of Germany's "Iraq Bonus"

As European embassies and flags burn in the Middle East, the already frayed nerves of German security services are being stretched taut. And with the World Cup starting in four months, there's no relief in sight.

Rage in the Middle East prompted by cartoons in the European press, German hostages in Iraq, terrorist attacks in Afghanistan: those who thought Germany's opposition to the Iraq war would spare them such reports have been proved wrong in recent weeks.

"People forget that since 9/11 more Germans have been killed by terrorism than during the entire (Red Army Faction) era," said Klaus Jansen, head of Germany's criminal investigators union. "We act as though it didn’t happen, because these attacks took place abroad."

Now, many Germans fear attacks closer to home. In the run-up to the World Cup beginning June 9, German security services have been working overtime keeping tabs on possible troublemakers and sifting through intelligence warnings on terrorist attacks. Recent events have only heightened concerns.

A thorn in the side of fundamentalists

Last week, protestors threw stones at Germany's embassy in Teheran and burned a German flag in the streets. Some contend the protests over cartoons in Berlin's Tagesspiegel showing the Iranian soccer team wearing bomb vests have been instrumentalized by the government as a protest against Europe and America's hard line against their nuclear program. But taken with Germany's troop commitment in Afghanistan and involvement in training programs for Iraqi police, German law enforcement officials say they are on a heightened state of alert.

"You clearly have to see that our involvement in the international fight against terrorism makes us a potential target for attackers," said Jörg Ziecke (photo), the head of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office at a recent conference. "We’ve been training Afghan and Iraqi police for quite some time now. These training activities have been very successful, and are certainly a thorn in the side of fundamentalists."

But Germany, like the rest of Europe, is still having trouble coordinating its national policing efforts. The announcement at the European Police Conference last week to set up a joint terrorism defense center that would put members of Germany's different security agencies under one roof comes late. And it is only as good as the amount of cooperation police are willing to provide one another.

Plea for a fundamentalist databank

"Nearly every terrorist attack we've had in Europe, we've had relevant information ahead of time," said Jansen. "We simply need stronger cooperation on a national level."

Jansen has been advocating creation of a nationwide fundamentalist database, an idea that has yet to win over Germany's notoriously tough data protectionists. Should it come into existence before the World Cup, Germany would be that much better prepared for potential horror scenarios, says Jansen.

No terrorism weather report

The country's law enforcement community seems confident that every precaution is being taken. At the moment, German police are conducting 194 investigations into suspects with radical Islamic backgrounds, said officials at the conference. But, they repeated, there has been no indication that anything is being planned.

The claim, warns Jansen, should be no reason for relief.

"There is no terrorism weather report," he said. "The message that we have no information that an attack is going to happen is correct, but it means nothing."

Deutsche Welle 02/2006

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bird Flu: Germany Prepares for Worst Case

Germany's agriculture minister expects bird flu to spread throughout the country and urged officials to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Efforts to contain the disease have top priority, he said.

After visiting the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer told health and veterinary officials in the rest of the country to be rigorous in enforcing measures to lock down all domestic birds and keep track of reported carcasses. "We must expect that this will expand to other geographical areas," he said at a news conference on Friday, urging state governments to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

"There will be zero tolerance," he added and warned that the rapidly spreading H5N1 virus, which so far has only infected migratory birds in Germany, could easily jump over to poultry livestock. From that point, it is also possible the disease could spread to humans.

Poor crisis management

On Saturday, the minister sharply criticized the ineffective containment strategy on the island. Pointing out that the media and general public had access to the collection points where the dead birds where discovered, Seehofer said efforts to close off the area and prevent the spread of the disease where ineffective.

"Our immediate responsibility is to contain the disease. We must make certain it does not spread from wild fowl to livestock," Seehofer stressed. He called for a complete cordoning off of collection points.

According to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, the disease is highly contagious and can easily be picked up and spread when people walk through bird droppings in contaminated areas. Therefore, all individuals with access to the dead birds are required to disinfect their shoes and vehicles passing through the infected areas must be sprayed down with disinfectant. No one with access to the carcasses is allowed to come in contact with domestic birds, where an outbreak of the disease would be especially detrimental.

Tests return positive for 13 birds

Tests so far have confirmed that 10 more birds found dead on the northern German island were infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. The expanded testing of wild birds on Rügen showed that three swans, six whooper swans and a goose tested positive for the most deadly strain of avian influenza. The results follow three previously confirmed cases earlier in the week.

According to a report on N24 news channel, health officials on Rügen said that preliminary tests on another 17 dead birds had shown they also carried the H5N1 strain of avian flu, which has also been know to kill humans.

The agriculture ministry reported on Friday that one of the dead swans discovered on Feb. 8 and tested for the worst strain of H5N1 had been ringed in Latvia last August. Seehofer said this fact gave rise to a theory that the virus was "being spread from east to west."

A total of some 80 birds have so far been sent to European Union approved laboratories for testing, while another 650 dead birds still testing.

Deutsche Welle 02/2006