Anatomy of a heist

It has emerged that Airports Company SA (Acsa) was aware of the imminent multimillion-rand heist at OR Tambo International Airport on Wednesday, but it was too late for security officials to act when alerted because the robbers had already made their way into high-security perimeters.

Holes in the security arrangements on the day also worked out to be highly convenient for the robbers’ smooth operation as they made off with millions of rands in foreign currency destined for the UK without firing a single shot.

It took the robbers just 20 minutes to get in, steal the money and drive off.

The absence of the police at the time the airport heist was pulled off has now come under scrutiny, raising suspicions of a possible inside job or collusion.

The gang used North Gate 1 – considered to be one of the most secure entry points – which serves as an entrance for protocol convoys transporting VIPs such as President Jacob Zuma, ministers and diplomats.

This gate appears to be a favourite entry point for criminals – it was also used by robbers in a 2006 heist when about R100m was stolen from the cargo wing of the airport.

A security officer who works at the airport said: “Reshebile Aviation and Protection Services, which controls access, was contacted by the Acsa control room at 19:27, informing its officers to be on high alert as there was a possible robbery threat.

“I don’t understand why the call came in at the time when the robbery was already under way.

"How does it happen that Acsa did not go through their cameras and call for security to be beefed up at the gate, which is notorious for robberies?

"Everything was convenient for the robbers as there were only moderately armed security guards to overcome.”

In its account, Acsa said the convoy of robbers pulled up at the restricted access North Gate 1 at 19:23.

It is explained in the same media statement that the gang exited through the same gate at 19:45.

The security official said Wednesday evening started off badly in terms of security arrangements, with police officers failing to report for duty at their normal posts.

He said there would normally be two police officers and four Reshebile officers at North Gate 1.

“The police officers did not pitch on the day and only one female security guard was armed with a 9mm pistol when the robbers pulled up to what is supposed to be the most secured gate.

"They stood no chance against heavily armed robbers carrying automatic rifles,” he said.

The same guard believes the police officers were also informed of the robbery threat, but nevertheless failed to guard their posts.

City Press has also learnt from an official at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate that the police were aware of the robbery even before it happened, but somehow chose to “take it lightly or totally ignore the tip-off”.

In the absence of police, a bakkie with police markings, two other vehicles fitted with blue lights and a few men dressed in blue uniforms worked as a perfect ruse for the robbers.

“They arrived at the gate and got their vehicles – a marked police bakkie, a Ford Focus and a Mercedes-Benz – registered.

"The problem started when they were asked to get out of their vehicles so they could be searched and verified. It was then that they pulled their guns and ordered the security officers on to the ground,” the security officer said.

“Two more security officers arrived and were ordered to join the others on the ground. Two of the robbers were left guarding the six security officers while the rest of the gang proceeded inside, where they pounced on Guardforce International Transportation security guards.”

The security officer said it was “convenient that police officers who normally escort valuable cargo from the vault to the aircraft with Guardforce did not arrive on Wednesday, leaving security guards to do it alone”.

“I believe Guardforce’s officers were caught off-guard when they saw people who looked like police officers arriving.

"They relaxed because they had been expecting them, not knowing the supposed police officers were actually robbers. They were also threatened with firearms,” he said.

Air cargo operators committee chairperson Alwyn Rautenbach said that, while it was the responsibility of all stakeholders, security had improved at the airport.

He added that the heist could have been made possible because “the crime was committed by police lookalikes”.

He said a total clampdown on crime was “difficult [in cases where guards believe] that it is the police who are coming in”.

A well-coordinated heist

In their wake, the robbers have left a complicated puzzle for investigators to put together in what seems to be a well-coordinated heist aided by several anomalies.

From the alleged absence of the usual police escort, lack of video footage evidence and a power outage at the time of the heist, the plan seemed to have had scores of tentacles with strong suggestions of inside help or collusion.

Acsa did not respond to questions about allegations surrounding the actual heist, including the suggestion that it knew about the possible robbery threat beforehand.

“All matters related to the robbery are in the hands of the police.

"Acsa is therefore not able to comment on claims and allegations about the robbery while the police investigation is proceeding,” Acsa said in its response to City Press’ questions.

Acting police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane played his cards close to chest, giving little information, but said that “an inside job or collusion could not be ruled out”.

He denied, however, that the police had received a tip-off beforehand.

He did not give any information about how the actual heist took place, urging the media to afford the police the opportunity to investigate the crime.

Meanwhile, Acsa spokesperson Refentse Shinners has denied a statement by an eyewitness that there was a power outage between 18:00 and 20:00, during which the daring heist took place.

While police have not disclosed the amount stolen, there have been various reports, citing amounts of between R24m and R200m.

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