A Helvetic Airways jetliner remains on the tarmac at Brussels' international… (Yves Logghe, Associated…)
PARIS — In barely five minutes, thieves in Belgium pulled off one of the most spectacular and dramatic diamond heists in years.
A Helvetic Airways jet on the tarmac at Brussels Airport was preparing for takeoff to Switzerland shortly before 8 p.m. Monday. The passengers were on board, the bags were in the hold, the doors were closed and the crew was going through the last safety checks.
Brinks security guards had just finished transferring a consignment of cut and uncut diamonds worth an estimated $50 million from their armored vehicle to the plane. Suddenly, what appeared to be two police vehicles — one of them a Mercedes van — roared up, blue lights flashing.
Eight men wearing police uniforms leaped out, armed with guns and faces covered by balaclavas. The men forced open the door of the plane's hold and removed about 120 parcels.
As quickly as they had arrived, the gunmen sped away through a hole in a security fence and were gone. Police later found the van, abandoned and burned out, near the airport.
No shots were fired and nobody was injured in the assault, which lasted just five minutes, Ine Van Wymersch of the Brussels prosecutor's office said Tuesday, and "the passengers saw nothing."
"They obviously wanted everyone to think they were police officers," Van Wymersch said. "This wasn't just a chance robbery. It was well planned by professionals."
Investigators suspect that the gang had an accomplice at the airport, the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws reported.
The aircraft scheduled for the flight to Zurich was operated by Helvetic Airways, a partner of Swiss International Air Lines. The flight was canceled after the robbery.
Investigators have refused to give a precise value for the haul.
"It was mostly diamonds. As far as we know there was no gold," Anja Bijnens, another prosecuting official, told reporters.
According to the World Diamond Center in Antwerp, Belgium, which represents the city's jewel traders, the value of the stolen diamonds was at least $50 million.
"These were raw and cut diamonds from Antwerp heading for Zurich and Switzerland," Caroline de Wolf, WDC spokeswoman, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. It was one of the "biggest thefts of diamonds in recent years," she said.
De Wolf refused to say who owned the diamonds.
"It's worrying that something like this could happen somewhere like an airport, that an armed gang could get on to the tarmac like this when around $200 million worth of diamonds leaves Antwerp every day," she said.
Antwerp has been a leading diamond center for centuries, with about 8 in 10 rough diamonds and 5 in 10 polished diamonds passing through it.
In 2003, Antwerp was the scene of one of the biggest diamond thefts in history, when thieves took precious stones, jewels and gold from the high-security vaults at the diamond center. Police estimated that haul at more than $98 million.
"This is causing quite some unrest," De Wolf said. "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."
An airport spokesman, Jan Van Der Cruysse, told reporters that officials believed the thieves had cut the hole in the perimeter fence. He was unable to explain how the area could be so vulnerable.
"We abide by the most stringent [security] rules," Van Der Cruysse said, "and meet all the requirements."
Willsher is a special correspondent.