A suspected hostage situation that began Tuesday night was no more than an elaborately staged attempted heist of an Acleda Bank branch, police discovered late last night after apprehending the so-called kidnappers following a 30-hour standoff.
Five men allegedly involved – including the acting branch manager and three other employees – were arrested by police yesterday in Kampong Cham province.
According to provincial police chief Chhay Kimson, the alleged bank robbers had fabricated the hostage situation – with two suspects, one with a gun, masquerading as meth addicts – as a bizarre ruse after plans to rob the small bank branch in Stung Trang district’s Beak Anlung village took a turn for the worse when police caught wind of a situation at the bank.
“Really, there were no hostages,” Kimson said late last night. “All of them are perpetrators. It is really an internal plan. We confiscated their K-54 [pistol].”
Until nearly midnight last night, police believed that two men had taken control of the bank at around 6pm Tuesday evening, taking three employees hostage, and initiating a standoff that lasted through Tuesday night and well into the next.
During the protracted negotiations, the supposed hostage-takers first demanded crystal meth, then that police loosen the ring of some 200 security personnel encircling the bank, and finally, two motorbikes for making good their escape.
After getting the motorbikes at about 10pm, police said, three men were seen fleeing into the darkness of a nearby rubber plantation, where they ditched the bikes, scattered and were later apprehended by security forces.
Upon arresting the three men – and questioning acting branch manager Sim Kimthath, who had been brought in as a person of interest, and branch employee Mat Ly, who had “escaped” the bank early Wednesday morning claiming to have been held hostage – police finally ascertained the truth of the matter, said Kimson.
Ly, he said, cracked under questioning, admitting that an injury where he had been struck in the face had actually been staged to lend his story authenticity.
Kimthath admitted to planning the heist to pay down a sizeable debt, said an unnamed provincial police officer.
The confessions, Kimson said, confirmed inklings of suspicion that the men were in cahoots that had been raised earlier when he overheard a voice – ostensibly a hostage’s – say from within the room where the men were holed up, “Don’t tie me too tight”.
One other suspect was Nou Tola, also known as Gem, 28, a soldier stationed at a border checkpoint in Preah Vihear province, and the only one of yesterday’s five alleged bank robbers who was not employed by Acleda, said another unnamed officer. The final two suspects’ identities could not be ascertained as of press time.
Throughout the entire day, police and Acleda Bank representatives were convinced that two meth-addled men, one armed, were holding two bank employees hostage, refusing food, declining an offer to leave with the bank’s 57 million riel (about $14,250) in exchange for the hostages, and repeatedly demanding that crystal meth be delivered to them.
In the end, even the number of people inside the bank turned out to be untrue, said Kimson. After Ly’s so-called “escape”, he said, there were only three men left inside.
Over the course of the day, police acquiesced to the suspected captors’ demands, first providing methamphetamines to the men inside around mid-afternoon, then sending for more to be delivered from Phnom Penh by Ministry of Interior police forces.
When roughly 25 black-clad anti-terrorism police showed up around 4pm, a Post reporter inside the bank overheard one of the suspects say: “If they shoot at us, we shoot back”.
Negotiations between the anti-terrorism police and the men broke down around 5:30pm, and at the request of both the assailants and Acleda representatives, police withdrew further from the premises, giving the men some breathing room, said Acleda Executive Vice President Prom Visoth.
“Our staffers have been detained in a room where we keep the money, but only a small amount of money,” he said at the time. “Police can’t do anything. The robbers want only drugs. They didn’t want money, but the police have no drugs for them.”
Visoth added that he had offered to let the suspects take the 57 million riel when they made their escape, but they declined.
Before learning that the branch had fallen victim to an inside job, Visoth called the incident a lesson for Acleda about the importance of security, saying that while most Acleda banks have armed police, the especially small Beak Anlung branch did not.
“In general, our banks have armed forces that we request from the national police providing us security, but at this office there is no police or security,” he said, noting that the branch handled little money, and sent what little it did handle to a district branch every night.