Two gunmen seized cash estimated at Sh42 million after a 10-minute robbery at an airstrip in Moyale, abetted by numerous security lapses, including absence of armed escort to receive the money.
The Cessna fixed-wing aircraft landed at Odha Airstrip in the border town at 1pm on Wednesday, with a pilot, co-pilot and private security official escorting the consignment, which included new Sh1,000 notes for a local Equity Bank branch.
In an unusual development, according to police sources, the cash collection vehicle with Wells Fargo private security guards and armed police officers that routinely waits for arrival of the plane whenever cash is brought in had not arrived.
The aircraft crew waited for 20 minutes only to be confronted by two men, one armed with a rifle. Other accounts claimed there were three suspects who attacked the crew.
Police are already pointing at an inside job because the usual cash collection routine was not followed.
According to security and bank sources, the cash-in-transit team in Nairobi alerts recipients in Moyale of the cash-in-transit, focusing on the plane’s departure and arrival times.
“They are supposed to take their cash collection vehicle accompanied by security officers who are in a separate car. They are supposed to be at the airstrip waiting for the plane to land, and not the plane waiting for them,” said an officer familiar with normal cash collection routines.
The bank had contracted officers from the Critical Infrastructure Police Unit to escort the money, Eastern Regional Police Commander Eunice Kihiko said.
The two gunmen, who appeared to be privy to the plane’s arrival, had cut a chain-link fence surrounding the airstrip. Flights between Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and Moyale take about one hour.
The cash was being brought from Nairobi for the bank’s normal operations and to expedite the exchange of old Sh1,000 notes that will stop being used at the end of this month.
The airstrip, which is situated 10km east of the town, is metres away from the Isiolo-Moyale highway. An army detachment also has a camp nearby.
The airstrip has no regular commercial flights and is mostly used by the army and Kenya Wildlife Service officials. Aircraft are mostly chartered by banks and non-governmental organisations.
The two robbers on a motorcycle struck immediately the plane’s door was opened.
The pilot told police one of the gunmen pointed a gun at them and forced them to lie down as his accomplice went inside the plane and picked up three money bags.
The robbers later jumped onto a motorcycle and fled. When the police escort arrived, they combed the area for hours, they told police. They later drove to the local police station to report the matter, after which senior officers visited the scene.
However, according to another source, the men struggled to ride away with the three heavy bags. One robber, armed with a rifle, walked to the fence to create room for their new cargo and also watch over his colleague.
But the lone rider appeared to be off-balance and dumped one bag on the runway, which was recovered with Sh13 million.
The robbers went back the same way they had come towards the highway, where they were joined by two more men, also on a motorbike. The gang zoomed off towards Dabeel on the border of Moyale and Wajir’s Bute township.
By the time of going to Press yesterday, the bank had not reported the exact amount of money stolen, but sources from the branch and security teams indicated it was about Sh42 million.
Moyale Deputy Commissioner Patrick Mumali and Sub-county Police Commander Antony Nderitu said they were waiting for the bank to report to police the amount stolen, but described it as "a lot of money".
“It was a lot of money, as it was meant to replace the old Sh1,000 notes at the branch, apart from the usual operations of the bank,” Mr Mumali told The Standard.
Mr Nderitu said senior bank officers were yet to report the exact amount stolen, adding that they only reported the theft of two bags containing cash.
Mumali said the robbers had initially taken the Dabeel route to mislead investigators, but police believe they are within Moyale town and surrounding estates.
He said the absence of a security escort at the airstrip had raised eyebrows, adding that investigators would pursue a theory that the heist was an inside job.
Yesterday passengers in public service vehicles from Moyale to Nairobi were thoroughly frisked in numerous roadblocks along the highway.
Ms Kihoko said they were open to any theory, including the possibility of an inside job. “Investigations have been launched and all parties involved will be talked to. We will take necessary action at the right time,” she said.
The two pilots and security officer were questioned on Wednesday evening. The bank officials in the area were questioned yesterday.
Bank robberies in the border town have been on the increase in the last three years. Rarely has the cash been recovered or suspects arrested.
A security source revealed that robbers flee to nearby centres in southern Ethiopia, hide the cash with relatives and return to Moyale town days later. The airport is about 15km from the Ethiopia border.
According to the administrator, the last robbery was carried out at another bank where an estimated Sh50 million was stolen.
About two years ago, a senior officer at Equity Bank was kidnapped from her house in Moyale town at night and taken to the bank, where the gangsters emptied the ATM and made away with millions of shillings.
The theft comes less than a week after another heist involving Standard Chartered Bank in Nairobi, during which Sh72 million was stolen. So far only Sh7 million has been recovered. Six suspects, including three police officers, have been charged in court.
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