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Philippine bankers in Bangladesh heist feared for lives

[MANILA] A Philippine banker shifted US$81 million stolen from Bangladesh's central bank into various accounts because she feared for her life, her colleague told a parliamentary investigation on Thursday.

Maia Deguito, manager of the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC) branch in Manila's financial district could only muster a blank stare when discussing the dirty money, said Romualdo Agarrado, a senior officer in the same branch.

"She just looked at me with a blank stare and said: I would rather do this than get killed, or my family," Mr Agarrado told the Senate inquiry.

In a scam that shocked the financial world, unknown hackers tried to steal around US$1 billion from Bangladesh's deposits with the US Federal Reserve in New York on February 5.

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They got away with US$81 million - sending it to the RCBC branch managed by Ms Deguito - before the scam was uncovered.

Authorities have lost track of the money, with significant amounts believed to have been laundered through Philippine casinos.

Although low-level bank officers in Manila have been implicated, no-one yet knows who was behind the heist.

Acting on a request from the US Federal Reserve, RCBC headquarters issued an order to recall the US$81 million from Ms Deguito's branch on February 5.

But on that day, Ms Deguito transferred US$66 million to accounts of ethnic Chinese businessman William Go, RCBC legal affairs head Maria Celia Fernandez-Estavillo told the Senate hearing on Thursday.

Ms Estavillo said the remaining US$15 million was transferred to another account, which she did not identify.

Mr Agarrado also said Ms Deguito approved a 20-million-peso (S$585,000) withdrawal from one of Mr Go's accounts, which he helped to load into her car.

Mr Agarrado said he knew something was wrong, but he did not report it to his superiors because he was "overcome with fear".

Pressed by senators, Ms Deguito denied being afraid for her life but declined to elaborate unless she could speak privately. The senators then began a classified session to hear her testimony.

Mr Go's lawyers told an earlier Senate hearing that he had not set up the account, and that his signature was forged.

Ms Estavillo, the RCBC legal head, told the Senate on Tuesday the US$81 million eventually ended up in the account of Philrem, a foreign exchange brokerage.

Philrem president Salud Bautista told Tuesday's hearing US$30 million was transferred to a casino junket operator who is of Chinese descent.

The rest of the money was transferred to Philippine casinos, US$29 million to Bloomberry Resorts, which operates the Solaire mega-casino in Manila, according to the anti-money laundering council.

Another US$21 million was transferred to Eastern Hawaii Leisure, which operates a casino that caters to a mainly Chinese clientele in the sleepy northern province of Cagayan, it said.