Illustration: ISTOCK
Illustration: ISTOCK

By Graeme Hosken‚ Jan Bornman And Kyle Cowan

Allegations of police corruption and security bungles cloak what is arguably South Africa's most audacious cash heist — the theft of nearly R200 million in foreign currency from Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport.

As police established a task force on Wednesday to hunt down the gang of up to 13 robbers‚ details of the heist began to emerge from numerous interviews conducted by The Times with airport security dealing with currency transfers.

At about 7.45pm on Tuesday night‚ four security guards were on duty at the airport's Gate 1 — known as “Rampside" — when a group of men in a police bakkie‚ wearing police uniforms‚ arrived at their guard post.

Accompanying them were men driving a white Mercedes Benz and a Ford Focus ST.

At least one of the vehicles is believed to have had Airports Company South Africa markings on it.

The men had ACSA identity cards which gave them access to the airport's highly secure cargo area.

It was business as usual — until the gates opened and the trap was sprung.

The gang‚ posing as police and Acsa staff‚ whipped out weapons‚ holding up the guards who were stripped of their phones‚ security radios and access cards‚ which were used to open the gates.

Several of the robbers stayed behind to man the gate. Their mission: to stop anyone from entering. Anyone arriving at the gates was told there was a security situation in the area and no one was to enter or leave.

Alwyn Rautenbach‚ chairman of the air cargo operators committee‚ on Wednesday asked questions about how the gang even got this far.

“Each vehicle that enters that gate must stop. There are grippers that will rip the tires if the vehicle doesn't stop. The driver and passengers have to get out of the vehicle.

“You must have an ACSA permit. They scan your fingerprints and you must swipe your ACSA access card and then you are searched.”

The Times entered the cargo areas in the same vicinity on Wednesday without being screened.

Meanwhile‚ as about four robbers manned the gate‚ the others drove towards their target - a tractor from Guardforce International Transportation‚ hauling a dolly.

On the dolly was a container filled with hundreds of millions of rands in foreign currency collected from South Africa's banks and foreign exchange services. The cargo's destination was London.

A source involved in foreign currency security said the robbers knew what they were doing.

“To pull off such a heist one needs to know flight numbers‚ arrival and take-off times‚ when the cargo left Guardforce's vault and which dolly it’s on.

“The only way to get this information is from an airline or security company insider.”

A regular police escort had failed to arrive to accompany them to the plane‚ The Times was told‚ but a Guardforce employee and G4S security escort had no choice but to continue with their delivery.

The guards trundled across the tarmac towards South African Airlines cargo flight 294‚ about a kilometre away from the security vault facility‚ used to store high risk cargo; After all‚ who would breach the area since the last security upgrade following 2006’s R100-million heist?

Nothing had been out of place when the cash — owned by Brink's Global Services — was delivered to the vault earlier.

When they reached the designated load spot‚ the guards stopped and waited.

The approaching police bakkie and unmarked vehicles‚ all of whom had lights flashing‚ did not raise their suspicions - until gunmen with assault rifles leapt from the vehicles.

As some held up the driver of the tractor and the guard vehicle‚ others broke open the container on the dolly.

The robbers grabbed 27 bags filled with foreign cash before they made their getaway‚ without a shot fired in the robbery - which took less than 30 minutes.

The G4S security guard raised the alarm‚ but when help arrived‚ the gunmen were long gone.

The only clues so far are CCTV footage and two vehicles - one a fake police vehicle - which were recovered in Mamelodi East‚ Pretoria‚ on Wednesday.

Tiaan Taljaard‚ G4S operations manager‚ confirmed the alarm had been raised by their guards‚ but declined to elaborate.

Brink's general manager Rhys Cullinan said he was not at liberty to say who the cash customers were.

However‚ a source told The Times that the stolen money was from South African banks and foreign exchange services.

“The money was in low denominations in US dollars‚ pounds and euros.”

South Africa's Acting National Police Commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane said officers were hard at work on the investigation. He was speaking at an impromptu press briefing in Richmond‚ KwaZulu-Natal.

"Two vehicles have been recovered in Gauteng and on examination the allegation that they are official police vehicles is unsupported. They are bogus police cars‚" he said.

Hawks national head Lieutenant General Mthandazo Ntlemeza has established a task team to investigate and arrest the suspects involved in the robbery.

"This is a serious matter and as the Hawks we will put out all stops to uncover the truth behind this weird robbery. We do not want to speculate at the moment but we are confident that people responsible for the robbery will be brought to book. The airport is a National Key Point and its safety is of paramount importance‚" he said in a statement.

- The Times

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