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£3m Beit heist raiders leave vital clues behind

THE gang who snatched two paintings valued at £3m from Russborough House in Co Wicklow yesterday left vital clues that may help gardai identify the ram-raiders.

The audacious daylight heist was the third theft from the house since 1974.

But in a hurried bid to escape with the paintings, from the home of Lady Beit, the three-man gang failed to set fire to the stolen four-wheel drive van used to ram the front doors.

They poured a gallon of petrol over the vehicle and hurled a match into it but it did not ignite.

Last night garda forensic experts were combing the vehicle and other items, including a cardboard box and rubber gloves, for fingerprints.

Initial inquiries suggest the daring raid was carried out by Dublin criminals rather than dissident paramilitaries.

The raiders are now faced with the same problem which confronted the late gangland leader, Martin "The General" Cahill who was responsible for the theft of 27 paintings from Russborough House in May 1986.

Nine of the paintings were discovered shortly afterwards on the shore of nearby Blessington lakes while all but three of the 18 others, valued at around £20m, were recovered in Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium and London.

One of the two paintings taken yesterday, Madame Baccelli, by Thomas Gainsborough and valued at £2m, was also included in the Cahill haul.

It had earlier been among the 19 paintings, valued at £8m, stolen by a republican gang led by British heiress, Rose Dugdale, in April 1974.

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The second painting taken yesterday, View of Florence Looking Towards The Ponte Vecchio, by Bernardo Bellotto, is valued at £1m.

The three raiders wore balaclavas and at least one had a handgun, probably a starting pistol.

The gang mounted the steps of the stately home in the vehicle at 12.30pm.

They hauled a piece of timber across the steps leading up to the front door and then drove up in the van to smash their way into the building.

The two oil paintings were removed immediately from the music room, indicating that the gang had carried out their "homework" and knew which pieces to take.

The snatched oils were most likely stolen "to order" according to the garda chief heading the investigation.

Although many of the paintings on display are reproductions, the two they chose are originals.

As soon as the paintings were removed from the wall, the thieves set off an alarm which sounded at a central station and the gardai were alerted at 12.42pm.

Two garda cars, on patrol in nearby Hollywood and Ballymore, sped to the scene.

Although gardai were on the scene within five minutes the gang had already made their getaway.

They also timed their lunchtime raid so that a guided tour had just finished, minimising the chance of witnesses.

But while the robbery was executed in a professional fashion, its aftermath showed signs of panic.

The gang, all in dark clothing, tried to torch the Kildare registered blue four-wheel-drive, stolen on June 24 from Crumlin in Dublin.

But they failed to set fire to it - leaving behind vital forensic evidence.

They then fled down the drive of the 250-acre Blessington estate in a second car brought with them, a VW Golf Gti.

But when they joined the main road they attempted to hijack the first vehicle they encountered on the Dublin-Baltinglass road.

They forced the driver into the ditch and fired a shot, trying to scare him into handing over his keys, but the local man refused.

Foiled, they drove on a short distance and abandoned their Golf, pouring petrol into it and leaving it a wreck in Russellstown carpark, a well-known picnic area. "They bungled in not burning the van," Chief Superintendent Sean Feely from Naas Garda Station said, who is leading the investigation.

"There may be fibres of clothing on the seats, they left a box with rubber gloves in it and we may be able to discover where they were bought."

However he admitted: "They knew what they were looking for in the house."

Gardai think they may either have fled on foot through the fields or had another car hidden in the area.

Last night gardai were trying to establish how they made their getaway from there and set up checkpoints around counties Wicklow and Kildare in an effort to trap the raiders.

An Air Corps Alouette helicopter, on loan to the Garda air support unit, joined the search around Blessington lakes but there was no sign of the raiders.

Last night detectives were trying to establish whether the raiders had links with the old Cahill gang who were mainly based in south Dublin.

The Pajero 4WD used by the gang had been stolen earlier in Crumlin and fitted with false Kildare registration plates.

Lady Beit, whose husband, Sir Alfred, died seven years ago, was in her private quarters yesterday during the raid and was not hurt during the raid.

Chief Supt Feely, the senior officer in the Carlow-Kildare division, was also heavily involved in the investigations into the two previous thefts as the local sergeant based in Blessington station.

Chief Supt Feely warned the chances of selling the paintings, particularly the Gainsborough, were very remote.

"Madame Baccelli couldn't be sold because everybody in the art world knows it's stolen," Chief Supt Feely said.

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