Tonbridge heist: Hello, hello, hello? (what is going on then?)

Opinions on the £53m banknote raid are mixed on both sides of the law. Cole Moreton and Paul Lashmar report
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The police say: Six villains are still on the run

Police hunting the gang behind Britain's biggest bank theft believe at least half a dozen more robbers are on the run, including the brains behind the heist.

Five people have appeared in court so far. A sixth was released on bail last night after being questioned by police. But a source close to the investigation said they were still looking for the "core robbers". He said: "We believe that there are at least six more major players. We are on the case."

And the former head of Scotland Yard's money-laundering unit said detectives were probably still looking for Mr Big. "I don't think they have got to the main players yet," said Cliff Knuckey. "These will be people with close links to UK organised crime."

The bulk of the £53m stolen from the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent, is still missing, despite a series of well-publicised searches at locations around the county. Police raided a car repair business in Welling, south-east London on Thursday and found bags containing cash. A 43-year-old man arrested on suspicion of handling stolen goods was still being questioned last night.

Estimates put the find at £7m, but yesterday Kent police would only confirm that it amounted to "several million". The full amount will not be known until forensic tests are complete.

The owner of ENR Cars, Nigel Reeve, was in Spain when his premises were raided. He told reporters by telephone that he had driven there two days after the robbery to help his girlfriend and children relocate. "After the robbery I'm driving to Spain in a white van ... I know it doesn't look good, but I'm completely innocent."

Another £1.3m was discovered in an abandoned white van near Ashford in Kent after the robbery. There were reports of £20m being found at a remote farm in Kent last week. But the amount recovered there so far is believed to in the tens of thousands and has been described by police as "not significant".

Mr Knuckey, who specialised in tracking down stolen money while with the Flying Squad, said yesterday that he believed the gang would have got off the streets as soon as possible after the raid in the early hours of 22 February.

"Hitting the depot at 1am means that half the local police are in the canteen and the other half don't come on duty until 2am," said Mr Knuckey, now a security consultant with Risc Management. "But the risk rises significantly for the robbers the longer they are on the streets after the robbery. So they had to stay close to Tonbridge."

They would have needed an inconspicuous location within about 20 miles of the depot, he said, to "slaughter" the money - divide the spoils so that gang members could get away individually. After that it would be up to them where they hid their own cash, but the more people they involved in the process of money laundering, the higher the risk of being found out.

Mr Knuckey also believes the raid required a man or woman on the inside at the Securitas depot. Would the insider have been pulled out by the gang before the robbery happened?

"No. It would draw too much attention from the police. I'd keep them inside." If such a person was still working there undetected then the arrests would have intensified the pressure on him or her. "The more of the team that get nicked, the more risky it becomes for the insider."

Four men and a woman have been remanded in custody and are due to appear at Maidstone Crown Court on 13 March.

John Fowler, 60, of Elderden Farm, Staplehurst, Kent, is charged with conspiracy to rob, handling stolen goods and kidnapping the depot manager and his family. Stuart Royle, 47, of no fixed abode, is accused of conspiracy to commit robbery. So are Lea John Rusha, 33, from Tunbridge Wells and Jetmir Bucpapa, 24, of Tonbridge. Kim Shackleton, 38, of Maidstone faces a charge of handling stolen goods.

The criminals say: This looks like The Lavender Hill Mob frame

The police may have called the robbers professional but serious criminals disagree. "This is not a professional team," said one career villain yesterday. "They started off well but now it is going pear-shaped."

He was scornful of the idea that the gang must have been run by a Mr Big who was expert in armed robbery, and staffed by old-timers who had carried out raids many times before.

"This is beginning to look like the plot of The Lavender Hill Mob - a bunch of amateurs who try to pull off the one big robbery and hope they can disappear. But you can't nick £53m quid without stirring up a lot of bluebottles." By which he means police.

Another armed robber who has now gone straight and operates under the pseudonym Horace Silver said it had been in the interests of Kent Police to praise the robbers' skills.

He said: "One thing you can always guarantee with crimes like this is that the cops will make out that the gang are incredibly clever and professional.

"It makes them look that much better if they catch them, and gives them an excuse if they don't."

Kent has long been a place of refuge for some of the country's most daring armed robbers, many of whom come from families that suffered the post-war poverty of south London.

The established career path is to get a reputation on the streets south of the river, become increasingly ambitious and then do a big job (such as the £26m Brinks Mat bullion raid, previously the biggest British robbery) and buy a nice pad in the country. Not too far from the old manor, mind. Tonbridge, where £53m was stolen from Securitas on 22 February, is right in the middle of robber country.

The depot is an astonishing sight - not because it is grand or imposing but because it looks like a completely anonymous warehouse sandwiched between a Kwik-Fit fitting centre and a ceramics warehouse.

The three-pronged metal fence is a little higher than usual and the black gates are locked all the time, but the only clue to the unimaginable fortunes inside is that the roof slopes outwards, making it impossible to climb on to.

Otherwise there is nothing to attract the attention of passers-by. There are lots of police around throughout the county now, however. The patrols are more visible that ever.

"A lot of serious crims who live in the Kent area are keeping a very low profile," said a major figure in the underworld of southeast London yesterday.

Unlike his fellow criminals he was holding out for the idea that this had been a professional gang, with a mastermind. The ones who did not do it would be inactive for a while, he said.

"There is a lot of heat on at the moment. I bet the crime rate in Kent drops for a month or two."