Robbers snatch $50M in diamonds from Brussels airport

Greg Campbell | Contributor

Nearly 10 years to the day from when a gang of Italian thieves pulled off the largest diamond heist in history, a gang of robbers once again made off with a cache of diamonds in Belgium worth an estimated $50 million during an audacious heist at the Brussels international airport.

On Monday night, eight robbers cut a large hole in the airport’s security fence, drove two vehicles equipped with flashing blue lights across the tarmac to a Swiss-bound airliner filled with passengers, and brandished weapons at the flight crew to gain access to the hold.

Authorities say they loaded the vehicles with more than 100 parcels of rough, uncut diamonds and precious metals and made off again through the same breached fence. The robbery took less than five minutes.

Police later found one vehicle believe to have been used in the crime, which had been torched. The men — and the loot — have not been found.

The diamonds had been delivered to the airport in a Brinks truck from Antwerp, an international diamond trading hub, which sees about $200 million worth of diamonds flow through it on a daily basis. Security in the Antwerp Diamond District, already formidable, was beefed up in 2003, after a gang of Italian thieves known as the School of Turin breached one of its high security buildings.

They bypassed security cameras, motion detectors, heat and infrared sensors and locked doors to make off with what some investigators estimate was nearly a half billion dollars worth of diamonds, jewelry, gold, cash and other precious stones.

Four men were caught and convicted in that crime, but investigators believe others they had never identified were involved. They have all served their time and been released.

None of the diamonds have ever been recovered.

Despite the safeguards in place to protect Antwerp’s diamond industry, plots to snatch its wealth are so common that a squad of federal detectives is tasked with nothing but investigating diamond crimes. Thieves have also been known to track diamonds as they make their way between Antwerp and airports in Brussels and Amsterdam; in 2005, thieves nicked $99 million from an armored car at the Amsterdam airport.

Antwerp, ever sensitive about its ability to protect the wealth of diamond dealers, was once again shaken by Monday’s heist, particularly by the apparent ease with which the thieves breached the perimeter of the airport.

“This is causing quite some unrest,” Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Center told the Associated Press. “It was incredible how easy it all went. This is worrying in terms of competitiveness, since other diamond centers are ready to pounce and take over our position.”

Aviation experts say its unusual that there was no immediate law enforcement response to the breach in the airport’s security fence, raising broader questions about the adequacy of the airport’s security. Passengers on the looted plane were not aware of the robbery and no one was hurt.

If the final value of the stolen goods is $50 million as reported, Monday’s heist would be fifth largest jewel heist in history.

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