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British police hunt raiders after 70 mln dollar robbery

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LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) British detectives today launched a manhunt for an armed gang who posed as police officers to steal up to 40 million pounds (nearly 70 million dollars) from a security depot in one of Britain's biggest robberies.

The robbers seized the depot's manager then took his wife and young son hostage and threatened to harm them unless he helped them get inside the high-security compound, police said.

The Bank of England, Britain's central bank, confirmed that 25 million pounds (44 million dollars) of its money had been stolen.

Unconfirmed news reports said the final haul from yesterday's raid could be more than 40 million pounds, making it Britain's biggest cash robbery.

If confirmed, it would eclipse the theft in 2004 of 26.5 million pounds from a bank in Northern Ireland. That raid was widely blamed on Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerillas.

''This was a traumatic ordeal for the Mmanager, his family and staff,'' said Detective Superintendent Paul Gladstone, of Kent police. ''We are determined to bring the raiders to justice.'' Police said no one was injured in the raid on the anonymous-looking depot in Tonbridge, 25 miles southeast of London. No arrests have been made.

The robbery dominated television news bulletins and made the front pages of most British newspapers today.

The Daily Mail said police were scanning security camera images from the Channel rail tunnel that links England and France to check if the gang fled to Europe.

It said the windowless depot, surrounded by a metal fence and covered in cameras, stored banknotes used in shops in London and southeast England.

The depot is run by Sweden's Securitas, the world's biggest security firm. It said in a statement: ''Members of our staff have had inflicted on them the most terrible and traumatic experience.'' Kent police's Gladstone said raiders in an unmarked car with police-style blue lights in its grille, stopped the depot manager as he drove home from work on Tuesday.

One of the gang, wearing a police hat and fluorescent jacket, spoke to the manager. He got into the gang's car and was handcuffed.

At the same time, his wife and son were abducted from their home by raiders dressed as police officers. The gang threatened to harm the family and forced him to let them into the depot.

They spent more than an hour loading a white truck with cash before escaping.

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King ordered an urgent review of banknote storage.

Other major British robberies include a 26-million-pound gold raid from London's Heathrow Airport in 1983 and the theft of cash and valuables worth up to 40 million pounds from a safe deposit box centre in Knightsbridge, central London, in 1987.

REUTERS CS SP0952

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