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€1m thrown by burglars during Belgian car chase scooped up by passers-by – but now the police want it back

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The street where the robbers lost their cool and threw a vault containing €1m

The street where the robbers lost their cool and threw a vault containing €1m

The street where the robbers lost their cool and threw a vault containing €1m

IT’S an oft-debated question of scruples: if you find money in the street, do you cite 'finders keepers' and pocket it or do the 'decent thing' and hand it in to authorities?

Furthermore, does the amount of cash found affect your decision? Less than a tenner seems hardly worth it, but you would think someone might seriously miss a few grand.

Well, this moral dilemma is being played out for real in a town  in north-west Belgium, after residents scooped up a chunk of a €1m burglary haul that robbers had attempted to get rid of amid a high-speed police chase.

Two weeks ago, locals in Zedelgem had their Saturday evening disturbed by the sound of screeching tyres and sirens as police pursued a getaway car following a break-in in a neighbouring town.

Suddenly, cash started flying through the air like confetti. It emerged that the burglars had thrown a safe from their vehicle in an attempt to shake off police, which then cracked open, leaving notes - some as large as €500 - blowing around the red brick house-lined street of Ruddervoordsestraat.

Dozens of wide-eyed residents rushed out of their homes to grab handfuls of cash, and there were even reports of one lady arriving with a broom and sweeping bundles of notes into her house.

Some Zedelgem inhabitants who missed the windfall said they understood the actions of their fellow residents, but insisted the size of the cash pile should have made them think twice. "If it were a €20 note," 77-year-old pensioner Hector Clarysse told the Associated Press, "I'd pick it up, too, and join in."

But he added: ''If you pick up so much money, you know it's not normal."

Police on the scene snatched money from people who weren't fast enough to get away, and now they want the rest of the money returned.

Residents now face a dilemma as getting caught hanging onto the money could see them face two years in jail.

The town's mayor Patrick Arnou says that although authorities have already secured nearly half of the million from the safe, the rest is still out there, and that his citizens should know better than to hang on to some other innocent party's missing cash, describing the money-grabbers as "beyond decency".

Once the adrenaline rush subsided, some people reached the same conclusion and handed back what they found. Late on Wednesday, a couple drove from Antwerp, some 60 miles away, to hand over €16,200 they had picked up driving through town.

An amnesty postbox was set up outside the city hall for people to drop stolen money in, but then this was itself targeted by thieves wanting a piece of the action.

Debate is raging in the town over what people should do with the money.

''There is a major discussion between people who think it should be given back and those who say 'keep what you got,"' Arnou said. "We are talking about sharp debates and opinions are very divided."

But for local prosecutor Jean-Marie Berkvens, things could not be clearer: ''Fraudulent concealment," he said, "carries a maximum jail penalty of two years."

Independent News Service