Image: Bank customers wait for information in Buenos Aires
Leo La Valle  /  EPA
A female employee of Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires reads the list of affected people in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after robbers stole more than 130 security boxes.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/4/2011 6:36:17 AM ET 2011-01-04T11:36:17

Thieves dug a 100-foot-long ventilated and lit tunnel from a neighboring building into a bank and emptied the contents of up to 140 safety deposit boxes, officials said Monday.

Authorities said three thieves entered a Banco Provincia branch in the Buenos Aires district of Belgrano on New Year's Eve when it was closed and spent the weekend opening and emptying between 130 and 140 of the branch's 1,408 boxes.

The robbery wasn't discovered until the bank opened Monday.

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Bank executives didn't say how much the thieves got away with because clients are not obliged to tell authorities what was in their safety deposit boxes. InfoBAE reported that the contents of each safety deposit box were valued at at 50,000 Argentine pesos (about $12,600).

The thieves rented a building next to the bank in June and spent months digging the tunnel, which emerged in an area where safety deposit boxes are located, prosecutor Martin Niklison said.

The bank's cameras filmed the robbers, thought to have been at least three, loading bags into a car before fleeing, Argentine news agency Telam quoted Niklison as saying.

Anti-seismic alarms
The tunnel had lights, ventilation, reinforcement and carpeting, Telam reported.

"It was a really impressive job," Niklison said, adding that officials had not ruled out that the thieves had an accomplice on the bank's staff.

Anti-seismic alarms sounded various times but police couldn't get into the bank to check out their cause, the prosecutor said.

Hundreds of bank clients gathered in front of the state bank Monday to demand their savings and blocked a nearby street to protest the slow pace at which authorities were confirming whose boxes had been robbed.

"The message we want to give (clients) is that we are going to protect their interests after this incident," Banco Provincia Vice President Gustavo Marangoni told channel C5N.

Many Argentines began putting their savings in bank safety deposit boxes instead of bank accounts following the country's 2001 financial crisis, when many depositors lost savings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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