Eight masked gunmen have snatched some CHF46 million ($50 million) worth of diamonds from the hold of a Zurich-bound Helvetic Airways plane at Brussels airport without firing a shot, the Belgian authorities have announced.
The gang used two black cars in their daring raid late Monday, grabbed the cache of 120 parcels containing the stones and sped off into the darkness, said Anja Bijnens, spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor's office.
"They tried to pass themselves off as police officers," Bijnens added. They reportedly wore outfits which resembled dark police clothing and both cars had blue lights on top, she said.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the criminals were well prepared, and passengers on the Fokker 100 plane saw nothing of what was going on. Police later found one burnt-out vehicle close to the airport and said they were still looking for clues.
The heist was estimated at some $50 million in diamonds, said Caroline De Wolf of the World Diamond Centre in the Belgian city of Antwerp, the world capital of diamond-cutting. She added later that the shipment contained mostly uncut diamonds from Antwerp.
"What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum," De Wolf said. Earlier media reports had quoted totals of up to €350 million (CHF430 million).
Hole in the fence
An airport spokesman said the robbers made a hole in the perimeter security fence and drove up to the Swiss passenger plane, which was ready to leave. The robbers got out of the car, flashed machine guns at pilots and Brinks security transport workers before taking the loot from the hold, which was accessed from outside.
Without firing a shot they drove off through the same hole in the fence, completing the spectacular theft within barely five minutes, Bijnens said.
Airport spokesman Jan Van Der Cruijsse could not explain how the area could be so vulnerable to theft. "We abide by the most stringent rules," he said.
The Zurich flight, operated by Helvetic Airways for Swiss International Air Lines, was cancelled. Swiss, part of the German Lufthansa group, said on Tuesday there were 29 passengers and four crew members on board, but declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation as the reason.
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.
Unlike a car or a truck, an airplane cannot be waylaid by robbers once it's on its way, and it is considered to be very safe before the departure and after the plane's arrival because the aircraft is always within the confines of an airport, which are normally highly secured.
Philip Baum, an aviation security consultant in Britain, said the robbery was worrying - not because the fence was breached, but because the response did not appear to have been immediate. That, he said, raised questions as to whether alarms were ringing in the right places.
"It does seem very worrying that someone can actually have the time to drive two vehicles onto the airport, effect the robbery, and drive out without being intercepted," Baum said.
That amount of time would also allow someone to board the plane, he said.
Airports and aircraft are rarely targeted by criminals. But in 1995, for example, robbers managed to access the tarmac at Brussels airport in a car and open the hold of a Swissair aircraft, stealing a package containing six bank pouches with an estimated CHF2 million inside. The money was never recovered.
In January 2001, an uncut 162.5-carat pink diamond worth several million francs disappeared somewhere between Geneva, Zurich and Johannesburg.
Two years earlier, a container with diamonds, travellers’ cheques and machine spare parts was stolen at Zurich airport. It vanished shortly before it was due to be loaded on a flight to South Africa and was only found empty the next day behind a hangar.
A decade ago, Antwerp was the scene of what was probably one of the biggest diamond heists in history when robbers took precious stones, jewels, gold and securities from the high-security vaults at the city’s Diamond Center, yielding loot that police in 2003 estimated to be worth about $100 million.
swissinfo.ch and agencies