£1.5m stolen from London gem vault

Jewellery and cash worth £1.5m was stolen from a vault in London's diamond dealing area by a thief pretending to be a wealthy businessman, Scotland Yard said yesterday.

He gained access to the high-security Hatton Gardens Safety Deposit centre by the simple device of renting a deposit box for eight months in the false name of Philip Goldberg. Last Saturday morning, in a scene reminiscent of the film The Thomas Crown Affair, the thief, dressed in a black suit and black hat, walked in with a black holdall and, unnoticed, rifled through several other boxes. The theft was not discovered for two days.

It is one of several audacious diamond robberies to hit London in recent months. In May, £7.5m was stolen from the upmarket jewellers Graff in New Bond Street by two smartly dressed robbers who threatened staff with a gun. In April, two men walked into an exhibition dedicated to Marilyn Monroe in County Hall on the South Bank, and stole jewellery worth £40,000 that had belonged to the star.

The Hatton Garden robbery also has similarities to the theft of diamonds worth $100m from the Antwerp diamond centre in Belgium five months ago by thieves who gained details of its security systems by renting premises and posing as legitimate dealers. Antwerp is one of the world's biggest diamond trading centres.

Police believe the Hatton Garden robbery had been planned for nearly a year. The thief had made many visits since first renting a box last year, giving him time to observe its security procedures.

Yesterday, Scotland Yard released closed-circuit television stills of the suspect, who is also known to use the name Ruben Luis or Luis Ruben. He is 6ft 4in and thought to be in his 50s.

Many of the boxes may have been used by local traders. Detective Inspector Pete Milner said: "It would appear that this was a well-planned and sophisticated theft targeting security boxes containing large amounts of cash and jewellery." Hatton Gardens Safety Deposit declined to comment.