Several VIPs and their bodyguards left the Mount Nelson hotel minutes before it was robbed this week. Picture: Jason Boud/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town - A diplomatic incident and possible bloodbath were narrowly averted at the Mount Nelson, when a number of VIPs and their bodyguards left the hotel minutes before it was hit by a gang of 15 pistol-wielding robbers.

The 100 guests at a Singapore Airlines function included Singapore High Commissioner Chua Thai Keong, Western Cape MEC for Finance and Economic Opportunities, David Maynier, and deputy mayor Ian Neilson.

The function ended at 10.30pm on Tuesday, and 15 minutes later, robbers stormed into the lobby where they forced staff and security to lie face-down on the floor.

In a matter of minutes they smashed jewellery cabinets with sledgehammers and stole about R50 000 worth of jewellery, about R6 000 in cash from the front desk and cellphones from overseas and South African guests in the bar.

“We were very, very lucky that all our guests had left the hotel by the time the robbers arrived,” said Singapore Airlines Cape Provinces manager Marco Giarrizzo. “It could have ended in a tragedy. Guests could have been hurt or killed. They left just in time.”

Maynier would not be drawn on what could have happened and avoided questions on his narrow escape from a potential firefight between bodyguards and robbers. He also would not comment on the imminent threat to the high commissioner’s security.

“What happened was an isolated incident,” he said. “We welcome the fact that law enforcement acted swiftly.

“We immediately activated our tourism safety response team, which offered support to guests and staff at the hotel.

“We take tourism safety seriously because tourism is a key sector that supports nearly 300 000 jobs in the Western Cape.”

The spokesperson for the hotel’s UK owners, Belmond, also dodged questions about how close the hotel came to experiencing a gunfight in the lobby.

“The safety and security of our guests and staff is our utmost priority and we have robust security arrangements in place which we regularly review.”

The spokesperson confirmed a police source’s observation that this was the second time the hotel’s jewellery shop, which opened seven years ago, had been raided. In a similar incident last year a gang using a similar modus operandi smashed jewellery cabinets and stole an undisclosed amount of jewellery and cash.

She would not say if any guests were affected in that robbery.

Despite upgrading security last year, robbers were easily able to gain access to pull off a heist for the second time.

The main entrance security guard put up no resistance and was held at gunpoint by two gang members while the rest made their way up the driveway to the entrance in a VW Polo and a Toyota Corolla.

At the time of going to press, police sources revealed that a multidisciplinary action team working around the clock had made arrests and were gathering evidence to link the suspects to the heist. However, this could not be officially confirmed.

Earlier, police sources told the Weekend Argus the Mount Nelson raid was pulled off by the same, efficient gang who executed daylight diamond heist at the Foreshore two weeks ago. In that robbery, four armed males wearing masks and workmen’s overalls robbed The Diamond Works store opposite the Cape Town International Convention Centre on a Friday morning.

“The modus operandi is exactly the same,” said the source. “These are the same guys who have been doing smash and grabs at jewellery stores in shopping malls. This week’s hotel one has been on the cards for a while now.

“Hotels are going to have to get smart and beef up security if they don’t want to become regular targets.”

In a twist to the robbery, the Mount Nelson had the last laugh. Despite being slick operators, the robbers fled on Tuesday without the real loot - millions of rand worth of jewellery that is removed from the display cabinets every night and stored in a secure vault until business hours the next day.

“The hotel locks the expensive stuff away in the evening,” the source said.

Weekend Argus