BELFAST -- Police raided properties yesterday in two Irish Republican Army strongholds of Belfast in search of $42.5 million stolen this week from a bank's underground vault.
Among the properties searched was the home of Eddie Copeland, a prominent reputed IRA commander in Ardoyne, a hard-line Catholic enclave of north Belfast. Police confiscated four cellphones and his shoes -- and even opened presents under his family's Christmas tree.
Scores of officers, many in white forensic overalls, also searched properties in Catholic west Belfast, the primary power base of Sinn Fein, the political party of the IRA. But they did not report any progress in their hunt for the gang responsible for Monday's raid on the Northern Bank headquarters -- the world's biggest all-cash robbery in peacetime.
The geography of the raids suggested the IRA tops the list of suspects.
The IRA -- which has been observing a cease-fire since 1997 but remains active on several fronts, including criminal rackets -- denied Thursday it was involved.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams complained to Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy about the searches in the Catholic neighborhood, which he said were harmful to the already strained peace process. Northern Irish peace talks stalled earlier this month when the top Protestant party rejected IRA disarmament promises.
Outside one search site, in Belfast's Ballymurphy neighborhood, protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers, injuring five, police said. Two of the injured officers needed hospital treatment, and one was knocked unconscious, police said.
Copeland, who has survived several assassination attempts, declared his innocence at the door of his Ardoyne home as police left without arresting him.
"They deliberately targeted me because they know I'm a republican in the area. It's politically motivated and they're trying to make out republicans were behind this robbery," Copeland said.
Police consider Copeland, 34, the IRA's top figure in Ardoyne, and he has faced death threats from Protestant extremists for a decade.
His father was killed by the British Army in disputed circumstances in 1971. His home has been repeatedly searched, and he has been arrested on suspicion of committing numerous crimes but never convicted.