Diamonds are forever – but gang stole £32m worth in three minutes

The raid, which it is thought to have involved up to eight men, took place on the tarmac at Brussels international airport

It was all over in three minutes. That was all the time it took eight highly professional thieves disguised as policemen and armed with machine guns fitted with laser sights to break on to the apron at Zaventem, Belgium’s biggest airport, on Monday night, race up to a Swiss plane about to be cleared for take-off, remove diamonds weighing 22lbs and worth about $50m (£32m), and speed away.

No shots were fired and no one was injured. The first the 22 passengers knew of the heist was when their flight was cancelled a short while later.

Last night Antwerp, the world’s oldest and biggest diamond-trading centre, was in shock at the ease with which one of the biggest diamond robberies in history had been carried out. Caroline de Wolf, spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, said: “Antwerp is the most highly secured diamond centre in the industry, guaranteeing a safe business environment and safe transport of the vast stream of valuable goods to and from Antwerp.

“We find it hard to understand how a robbery such as yesterday’s could take place.”

To minimise exposure to theft it is usual to move diamonds by air and to load them into the hold of aircraft as late as possible before take-off. But these precautions were to no avail on Monday.

It was 7.47pm local time when the gang broke through the airport’s security fence at a point between two construction sites. A Mercedes van and an Audi saloon car, both with flashing blue lights, raced up to the Swiss plane, operated by Helvetica Airways, where a Brinks security van was in the process of loading the consignment of diamonds, both cut and uncut, into the airplane’s hold. Four men wearing masks and hooded police cagoules leapt out of each vehicle and held pilots, crew and other personnel at gunpoint while they removed the precious load.

Not a shot was fired and no one was injured, and within three minutes they were back in their vehicles and heading for the hole in the fence. The Mercedes van was later found burnt out. A manhunt was under way to trace the robbers and the other vehicle last night.

Antwerp, where the stolen diamonds had been traded, has been the centre of the world’s diamond trade for centuries. Today 80 per cent of rough diamonds and half of polished ones are traded in the city. Karen Rentmeesters, an expert from the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, told The Independent, “it is virtually impossible to trace the stolen diamonds, whether rough or polished”.

Monday’s exploit compares with the theft of diamonds worth €21m (£18m) from an Antwerp bank in 2007 by a man with a false Argentinian passport who had charmed bank staff with gifts of chocolates.

And 10 years ago three Italians and a Dutch woman succeeded in emptying 123 Antwerp bank safes of gold, diamonds and cash worth $180m. However, that gang made an elementary error. On the motorway between Antwerp and Brussels, they dumped a bin bag containing CCTV footage of the heist, security passes, and documents that named one of the members of the gang and referred to the diamond centre they robbed, all of which led to their swift capture. Belgian police will surely be hoping for a similar slip by the latest gang.

A cut above: The most audacious heists in history

London Millennium Dome, 2000

Using a JCB digger to ram down fences, four robbers attempted to steal De Beers diamonds worth over £350m, including the 203 carat De Beers Millennium Star, from a display at the Millenium Dome on 7 November, in what police said would have been the largest robbery in the world if it has been successful. But the Metropolitan Police had expected the raid and replaced the diamonds with replicas. Under the codename Operation Magician, officers dressed as cleaners had waited for the would-be robbers, and seized their getaway speedboat.

Schiphol Airport,  Amsterdam, 2005

Dressed in stolen uniforms belonging to the Dutch Airline KLM and driving a stolen KLM van, thieves hijacked an armoured truck carrying diamonds at Schiphol Airport in February 2005. The armoured van contained uncut diamonds worth an estimated $118m. They have never been recovered.

Harry Winston Store,  Paris, 2008

Dressed as women, four gun-wielding robbers entered the Harry Winston Store on Avenue Montaigne near the Champs-Elysees in December 2008 demanding diamonds and jewellery. Addressing the staff by name, the cross-dressing gang walked away with a haul worth $108m. Twenty-five people were later arrested. Some of the jewels, valued at $25m, were found in 2011 hidden in a Paris sewer.

Antwerp Diamond Centre, Belgium, 2003

In one of the most complicated heists to date, four thieves rented an office space and analysed alarm systems before obtaining keys to the Diamond Centre’s vaults and making away with a haul estimated to be worth $100m in February 2003. The thieves, later identified as part of the criminal ring dubbed the ‘School of Turin’, were arrested but the jewels are yet to be found.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head