Armed gang stage ‘gigantic’ diamond heist

Eight masked gunmen forced their way through the security fence at Brussels Airport, drove onto the tarmac, and snatched some $50m (€37.4m) worth of diamonds from the hold of a Swiss-bound plane without firing a shot.

The gang responsible for one of the biggest diamond heists in recent years, used two black vehicles with flashing blue police lights in their daring raid late on Monday, said Anja Bijnens, spokeswoman for Brussels prosecutor’s office.

“They tried to pass themselves off as police officers,” Bijnens said. The robbers, who wore outfits resembling dark police clothing, got away with 120 parcels, mostly containing diamonds.

The heist was estimated at some $50m in diamonds, said Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. “What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum,” she said.

The robbers forced their way through a perimeter fence, at a place where two work sites obstructed a clear view, Bijnens said. There were no details about how the hole was opened but airport authorities said it must have taken more than simply blasting through it with a vehicle.

The robbers drove up to the passenger plane some 20 minutes before departure time, brandishing machine guns. They methodically broke into the hold, which was accessed from outside, to choose their loot.

The robbers finished their clinical operation with a speedy departure through the same hole in the fence, completing the theft within barely five minutes, Bijnens said.

The Helvetic Airways flight, bound for Zurich, was cancelled.

Diamonds have been Antwerp’s best friend for more than 500 years, ever since a local entrepreneur discovered how to polish the stones to perfection.

The square kilometre near the city’s impressive railway station looks drab and seedy at first glance, but behind the facade is a business worth over €40bn a year.

There are 1,800 dealers and through their hands pass 80% of the world’s rough diamonds, half the cut stones, and 45% of industrial diamonds.

It is still the world’s diamond capital, employing 8,000 people directly.

Such wealth attracts lots of shady characters. Locals tell of shootings, stabbings, disappearances and riches that appear overnight.

This latest robbery is typical, showing a high level of skill, lots of preparation, and deep suspicions of insider knowledge and help.

Ten years ago — almost to the day — an estimated €75m worth of diamonds, gold, and jewellery was stolen from vaults two floors below the city’s diamond centre.

A half-eaten sandwich found nearby, led to the conviction of an Italian, Leonardo Notarbartolo. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but who exactly was behind the heist has produced lots of theories, but few of substance.

It was the biggest diamond robbery in history until Feb 25, 2005, when a gang hijacked an armoured truck at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and made off with diamonds estimated to be worth €80bn.

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