Thousands of tons of coal were stolen from Vietnam's top coal producer in February as both local and company officials looked on in apparent apathy.
Authorities kept mum about the incident until Monday.
Le Minh Chuan, deputy director of Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin), said Monday that thieves broke into a mine operated by Vinacomin's Mao Khe Coal Company during Tet, when company officials and workers were on holiday.
Chuan said the company didn't report the loss. He was informed in late February by the authorities in Dong Trieu District, Quang Ninh Province, where the company manages 21 square kilometers of coal mines.
The thieves brought more than 20 excavators and dozens of vehicles to the site on the morning of February 10, three days before the Lunar New Year. The trucks and machines worked day and night on February 12 and 15 on around two square kilometers, officials said.
According to local residents, the thieves had planned the heist carefully while local governments reacted "weakly and ineffectively."
Chuan said the thieves were large in number and surrounded the site from all directions. He said Mao Khe Company should be held responsible for the incident.
Nguyen Thi Huan, chairman of Dong Trieu District, said Tuesday that she was not invited to a company meeting convened before Tet to discuss ways of dealing with possible coal theft.
Huan said the district People's Committee sent officials to check on reports of robbery February 12 and 15 but the thieves outnumbered the officials and secutiry guards at the scene.
Chuan said the management of the Mao Khe mines was not "tight" enough and that the company should have prepared more properly given that they had anticipated the problem.
Nguyet Viet Ngu, director of Mao Khe Coal Company, told Thanh Nien in a Tuesday interview that the company "didn't expect such a large number of thieves and all the machines."
Ngu said the thieves excavated coal between the mining area and local homes. They were also seen digging in some ponds and ditches that were not on company property.
"We cannot stop them then, legally" he said.
The Mao Khe director, who was absent from the site during the robbery , said "I actually didn't think the problem was that serious because officials called me every day to report that things were under control."
Ngu refused to comment on public suspicion that some officials, from the district or the company, might have had a hand in the case.
Mao Khe company had begun working to repair some of the damage done to mining site, but there were still many holes dozens of meters deep as of Monday.
Vinacomin officials have asked the company and local authorities submit a detailed report on the incident and identify the responsibility of all those involved in managing the site.
Quang Ninh police said they has begun investigating the case Monday.
In 2009, authorities in Dong Trieu District busted more than 100 illegal coal mines but they resumed operations soon after.
Mao Khe officials have been threatened by coal bandits several times. Some have been attacked with knives or had their homes bombed when they tried to stop the thieves.
Coal officials facing charges
In related news, Quang Ninh police on Tuesday put seven former foremen of local Quang Hanh Coal Company under house arrest for forgery and fraud.
Truong Anh Hao, Vu Duc Hoc, Nguyen Khac Cuong, La Thanh Phong, Vuong Dinh Thuan, Lai Doan Quan and Nguyen Viet Hung were accused of cooperating with another company to write fake invoices to embezzle nearly VND2 billion (US$105,200) from the company.
Quang Hanh director Nguyen Xuan Dung and office head Tran Huy Hiep had been detained earlier for involvement in the case. A trial date for the case is pending.