Berlin Bank Robbers Escape . . . Right Under Cops' Noses

BERLIN - It may not have been the perfect heist, but it was close: Four robbers stormed a bank in southern Berlin this week, seized 16 hostages, collected $3.6 million in ransom and then, 18 hours later, slipped away with their loot through a pre-dug tunnel beneath the feet of several hundred heavily armed police.

There is still no trace of the robbers.

The drama opened Tuesday at 10:25 a.m. when four masked men in a stolen Volkswagen van pulled up to a Commerzbank branch in the prosperous Zehlendorf neighborhood. Using mostly hand signals and armed with pistols, hand grenades and a shotgun, they handcuffed the hostages and covered their heads with shopping bags.

Thirty minutes later, a single hostage was set free to deliver a typed note demanding, within six hours, a getaway car, a helicopter and 17 million marks ($12.2 million). As negotiators tried bargaining over the telephone, police cordoned off the area. More than 30 radio and television stations set up a forest of satellite dishes for live broadcasts.

At 8 p.m., their patience wearing thin, the robbers threatened to shoot a hostage in the leg. Ninety minutes later, as directed, two policemen dressed only in bathing suits trundled to the bank's front door with five sacks containing 5 million marks as a down payment on the ransom demand.

At 9:50 p.m., gunfire echoed through the barricaded street as the robbers blasted several outside lights and a surveillance camera. Then, nothing. The handcuffed hostages could hear their captors ransacking safe-deposit boxes; from the basement came an odd clamor, like pickaxes chipping at concrete.

Shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday, the assistant branch manager managed to wriggle to a phone, telling police he believed the men had vanished. No sound had been heard for more than two hours. At 3:43 a.m., a commando team outfitted with automatic weapons and night vision goggles swept into the bank.

After freeing the unharmed hostages, the police found a gaping hole in the basement. The hole led to a 384-foot tunnel - part of it freshly dug and part of it following a storm sewer. Running about 10 feet beneath the surface, the tunnel had been shored up with timber and steel plates. It emerged in a garage, where police assume the robbers had a getaway car waiting.

The demanded helicopter, authorities concluded, had been a diversion. Masks, clothes and weapons were found abandoned in the tunnel.

Yesterday, as police broadened their dragnet and pleaded for possible witnesses to come forward, several mysteries remained. How could such an engineering feat take place undetected in a busy urban neighborhood? Since the garage was still within the cordoned-off area, how did they manage to slip through police roadblocks? How much money, jewelry and other valuables did the robbers get from the safety-deposit boxes and bank vaults? And who were those masked men?

Despite the lack of clues, police vowed to catch the culprits.

"You could say," commented, "that it's become rather a matter of honor for us."