Friday 24 November 2017

Bank calls in robbers to 'liberate' gold from its vaults

The aftermath of the Hatton Garden raid, when a gang tunnelled through concrete
The aftermath of the Hatton Garden raid, when a gang tunnelled through concrete
The late Colonel Gaddafi

Colin Freeman in Tripoli

It has all the elements of a classic heist movie: a stash of gold belonging to a late dictator, an elderly vault with a missing combination number and a pair of legendary safe-crackers brought in for one last job.

Yet despite a plot that rivals the Hatton Garden deposit box theft, this is not the latest Guy Ritchie script, but a story of everyday banking life in Libya, where political chaos has forced one central bank chief into desperate measures.

Ali el Hibri is governor of the central bank's branch in the eastern Libyan city of Beyda, which has run drastically short of cash to pay government salaries for the next few months.

One easy way to make up the shortfall is to plunder a treasure trove of nearly 300,000 gold and silver sovereigns minted in honour of the late Colonel Gaddafi, which are worth nearly €160m.

There is, however, a problem. The coins are stashed away in a British-designed, 1960s-built vault - and the only people who know the five-digit combination number that opens it are fellow governors at the central bank in Tripoli.

They, though, are refusing to hand it over, saying they are worried that the gold will fall into the hands of militias.

The late Colonel Gaddafi
The late Colonel Gaddafi

In any other country, that would normally be the end of the matter. But given the disputes over who actually runs Libya at the moment - the east and west were run by rival governments until last month - Mr el Hibri has felt free to take matters into his own hands.

According to the 'Wall Street Journal', he has roped in the services of a pair of veteran Libyan safe crackers - an engineer known only as 'Khaled' and a locksmith known only as 'Mr Al Fitouri' - who honed their expertise breaking into vaults on behalf of Libya's rebels during the 2011 revolution.

In a strategy similar to London's Hatton Garden burglars, who got away with up to €250m after drilling through vault walls protecting safety deposit boxes, the pair now plan to drill a square-foot-sized opening in the vault's concrete.

That will give just enough space for the safe's combination lock to be picked open by Mr al-Fitouri, who says he can use "special" techniques to decode it.

Mr Hibri says he has been forced into the drastic measures because he is facing a wait of several months before a delivery of freshly printed Libyan dinars from an overseas supplier.

The central bank in Tripoli has been sending €20m a month to eastern Libya to pay salaries, but Mr Hibri says that is only a tenth of the cash that he needs.

As if the plan was not unorthodox enough already, there is a further complication in that the coins, which were minted to commemorate Colonel Gaddafi's 10th year in power, all carry the former tyrant's head.

So reviled is Gaddafi now that Mr Hibri has had to strike an agreement with local metalsmiths to melt them down first to remove his image.

The notion that different branches of the central bank are not at peace will cast a shadow on a summit in Vienna today, where Libya's new Government of National Accord will be showcasing its efforts to bring unity to the country. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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