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Marbella bank heist largest ever at $15 million

MARBELLA, Spain -- A gang of sophisticated thieves who cleaned out the safe deposit boxes of aristocrats and jet setters is believed to have made off with an estimated $15 million -- the largest bank haul in history.

The thieves, working undisturbed over the three-day Christmas holiday, extracted cash, jewels, securities, heirlooms and art treasures from some 200 safe deposit boxes in the vault of the Bank of Andalusia.

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Banking sources said Wednesday the value of the contents of the safe deposit boxes was unofficially estimated at $15 million.

Police said they had no clues to the gang's identity.

Officials said the Marbella branch of the bank was well chosen by the thieves because it is a favorite place for the international jet set and wealthy Spaniards in the posh Costa del Sol resort to deposit their valuables.

One of the bank's customers, Spanish aristocrat Jaime de Mora y Aragon, brother of Belgium Queen Fabiola, was reported to have lost some $600,000 and a priceless collection of Goya watercolors.

Several of the wealthy Arabs frequenting the resort -- who have invested heavily in real estate there and have built a new mosque -- also were reported to have had safe deposit boxes in the branch.

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Authorities said the thieves entered the bank on Christmas Eve after cutting a hole through the wall of a vacant apartment next door. They disconnected the extensive alarm system and cut open the vault with acetylene torches.

When bank employees arrived for work after the weekend, the vault door was ajar and the safe deposit boxes empty. The thieves left only their torches and some orange peels behind.

The precise value of the loot will never be known because some of the boxes probably contained cash and securities hidden from tax collectors and therefore not reportable, said police officials who declined to be identified.

The estimate of the Marbella theft made it the largest bank robbery ever, eclipsing two previous heists in France.

In a 1976 operation in Nice similar to the Marbella case, thieves tunneled from the sewers under the Societe Generale bank and spent a weekend rifling 339 safe deposit boxes and two vaults to rake in $9.8 million.

In Paris in 1980, a thief closed himself into the safe deposit vault in a bank on the Place de Mexico on a Friday, let in accomplices over the weekend and made off with about $11.5 million.

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