Diamond heist at Brussels airport nets gang up to £30m in gems

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 19 February 2013 11.25 GMT

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and agencies

Diamond heist at Brussels airport nets gang up to £30m in gems

Masked armed men held up security van as safes full of brute diamonds and jewels were being loaded on to a plane

The Switzerland-bound plane the diamonds were loaded on to at Brussels international airport. Photograph: Eddy Risch/EPA

Belgian police are looking for eight masked gunmen who stole tens of millions of pounds worth of jewels from a security van that was loading the hold of a Switzerland-bound plane.

The raid at Brussels airport happened just before 8pm on Monday. The heavily armed men drove through the airport security fence in two vehicles, a Mercedes van and a car, and made straight for a Brink’s delivery van. The staff were loading safes full of diamonds on to a Swiss plane bound for Zurich. The gunmen quickly filled their vehicles with the boxes and fled through the same broken security barrier. No shots were fired. A burned-out van was later found nearby. The raid lasted just three minutes. The exact value of brute diamonds, believed to hail from Antwerp, was uncertain, but estimates put it at £30m ($50m). “What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum,” Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre told the Belgian VRT network.

An airport spokesman, Jan Van Der Crujsse, said the gunmen made a hole in the perimeter fence, and drove right up to the Swiss plane, which was ready to leave. The men flashed their weapons and took the boxes of jewels from the hold.

Van Der Crujsse could not explain how the area could be so vulnerable to theft. “We abide by the most stringent rules,” he said.

The Swiss flight, operated by Helvetic Airways, was cancelled. Swiss, an affiliate of Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG, declined to comment on the heist, citing the ongoing judicial investigation.

The insurance for air transport, handled sometimes by airlines themselves or external insurance companies, is usually relatively cheap, because it’s considered to be the safest way of transporting small high-value items, logistics experts say.

A decade ago, Antwerp, the world capital of diamond-cutting, was the scene of what was probably one of the biggest diamond heists in history, when robbers took precious stones, jewels and gold from the high-security vaults at Antwerp’s Diamond Centre in 2003. Police stsimated the haul at £64m.

The Diamond Centre stands in the heart of the high-surveillance diamond district where police and dozens of cameras work around the clock, and where security has been beefed up further since the spectacular 2003 robbery.

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