Luxury car dealer from Cote d’Azur under arrest over £30m airport diamond heist

Eleven held in custody after swoops in three countries, with cash and jewels recovered

Following a wave of arrests across three countries earlier this week, an investigation into one of the world’s biggest diamond heists is honing in on the alleged masterminds of the plot in which armed robbers stole £30m-worth of jewels from the hold of a Swiss plane at Brussels airport.

A French luxury-car dealer with a prison record for fraud has been identified as the key suspect in the spectacular theft, which involved eight machine-gun toting robbers in police uniforms, with blue flashing lights on their cars. The raid was carried out in February under the noses of passengers on a Helvetic Airways plane loaded with diamonds bound for Zurich.

The robbery took less than five minutes, and the gang managed to escape by driving at high speed through a hole they had previously cut in the airport security fence. Initially police had no idea who was behind the operation.

But on Wednesday Belgian investigators announced that police had arrested 31 suspects in a massive cross-border operation conducted in Belgium, France and Switzerland. State prosecutors in Brussels said they had also tracked down a “significant amount” of diamonds and cash.

Eleven of those held were reported to be still in custody yesterday. Eight have been charged in connection with the theft. Belgian prosecutors said they believed that a French luxury-car dealer, identified as Marc Bertoldi, 43, who was arrested in France on Tuesday, was a key suspect. They said he was probably one of the gunmen.

Mr Bertoldi’s address is listed as being in a wealthy neighbourhood of the seaside resort of Antibes on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France. He also owns a restaurant in the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

Jean-Marc Meilleur, a Belgian prosecutor’s spokesman, said Mr Bertoldi had a “very heavy judicial background”. He has previous convictions for robbery and fraud and has served a prison term. Belgium has applied for his extradition from France, and a court is scheduled  to rule on the request next week.

Investigators say that Mr Bertoldi’s appearance in Geneva after the theft provided them with a breakthrough. After Mr Bertoldi’s arrest in France on Tuesday,  Swiss police said they had tracked down an as yet unidentified Swiss lawyer and another suspect identified only as a property owner.

The two men were apparently caught as one gave the other the key to a cellar where some of the stolen diamonds were held. The jewels were recovered and the two men were arrested and are still in detention. It was not clear yesterday whether they had been charged.

Oliver Rondu, Mr Bertoldi’s lawyer, said that his client had denied the accusations and was willing to be extradited to Belgium to explain his innocence. “He wants to go to Belgium as quickly as possible to explain himself because he says he has done nothing,” Mr Rondu said.

Francis Canonica, a lawyer representing the unnamed Swiss lawyer in police custody in Switzerland, also said that his client had denied any wrongdoing. He told the Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve, “My client has faith that ultimately he will be acquitted.”