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.