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31 arrested in $50-million diamond robbery at Brussels Airport

Arrests take place in Belgium, Switzerland and France in connection with the daring tarmac heist in February outside a Helvetic Airways jet.

May 08, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Thieves targeted this Helvetic Airways jet at Brussels Airport in February, making off with $50 million in diamonds in a lightning-fast strike.
Thieves targeted this Helvetic Airways jet at Brussels Airport in February,… (Yves Logghe / Associated…)

LONDON — Thirty-one people have been arrested in a three-country sweep tied to a spectacular $50-million diamond heist at a Belgian airport in February, officials said Wednesday.

More than 250 officers with the Belgian federal police and the country's special branches fanned out across Brussels early Wednesday, conducting 40 house searches and arresting 24 suspects.

A day earlier, six people in Switzerland were taken into custody, as was one in France who authorities believe was among the masked thieves who took the gems from a jet on the tarmac at Brussels Airport.

At least some of the stolen diamonds have been recovered in Switzerland, as well as a stash of money and several luxury cars in Belgium, said Anja Bijnens, a prosecutor in Brussels.

The almost movie-like caper was one of the most brazen and daring in years, a lightning-fast strike that was over before passengers aboard the plane had any inkling of what had happened.

The Helvetic Airways jet was ready for takeoff to Zurich, Switzerland, on the evening of Feb. 18. As flight attendants went through final safety checks on board, Brinks security guards outside finished transferring a shipment of cut and uncut diamonds from their armored car to the plane.

Suddenly, what looked like two police vehicles, one of them a Mercedes van, raced up to the aircraft, blue lights flashing. Eight armed men jumped out, wearing police uniforms but also balaclavas that hid their faces.

After prying open the door to the plane's hold, the group snatched about 120 packages and sped away without firing a shot. The vehicles escaped through a hole cut in the airport fence; the van was later found burned out and abandoned.

The robbery lasted about five minutes. Passengers saw nothing.

Bijnens said the 31 arrests resulted from a cooperative effort by police in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

"The investigation is ongoing and will have to determine who did what exactly. For now, there are diamonds recovered in Switzerland, and we are sure they came from the robbery," though it is unclear whether the entire haul has been found, Bijnens said.

"Large amounts of money were found" in Belgium, along with luxury cars, she said, but it was too soon to say whether they were related to the theft.

Detectives are trying to determine whether the robbers were part of an established ring; of the 24 suspects arrested in the Brussels area, 10 have criminal histories, Bijnens said.

Belgian news media have reported that investigators suspect that the thieves had an accomplice at the airport.

The Antwerp World Diamond Center, which represents the northern Belgian city's many jewel merchants, valued the stolen diamonds at $50 million. The organization has declined to identify the owners.

About 8 of every 10 rough diamonds in the world and half of all polished ones pass through Antwerp, a hub of the diamond trade for centuries.

It could be "very difficult to figure out" which of the recovered stones belongs to whom, diamond center spokeswoman Caroline De Wolf said. The contents of the many parcels might have been jumbled together after the robbery.

The industry pays for Belgian federal police to escort shipments to Brussels Airport, where airport security and private guards take over. But since the robbery, federal officers have been accompanying valuable consignments onto the tarmac, De Wolf said.

Despite the theft, there is no discussion of any alternatives to shipping diamonds and other precious cargo by air, she said.

"It's always transported by airplane," she said. "It's the safest way."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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