Police in Belgium, France and Switzerland claimed to have tracked down the gang behind a spectacular £30m diamond heist, arresting 31 people and seizing large amounts of cash, three months after armed robbers seized jewels from a Swiss plane at Brussels airport.
Belgian state prosecutors said a Frenchman, believed to be one of the robbers, had been apprehended in France on Tuesday, while a further six people were held in Switzerland. In Belgium 24 suspects were rounded up in a police operation.
Brussels prosecutor’s office spokesman Jean-Marc Meilleur told a news conference: “In Switzerland we have found diamonds that we can already say came from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found.” Mr Meilleur said the investigation into the robbery was continuing. He said the suspect held in France has a “very heavy judicial background” and that a request had been made for his extradition to Belgium. Ten of the 24 held in Belgium were known criminals.
The robbery on 18 February has been described as one of the most spectacular in recent years. Shortly before 8pm, eight men dressed in police uniforms and toting machine guns drove through a hole cut into the security fence at Brussels airport in a Mercedes van and a car equipped with flashing blue police lights. They made straight for a Swiss passenger plane.
The aircraft, operated by Helvetic Airways, had just been loaded with diamonds by security guards and was due to take off for Zurich. The robbers threatened the security guards with their weapons but no shots were fired. They then climbed into the hold and stole 120 parcels of diamonds which they then loaded into their vehicles.
Driving at high speed, the robbers fled back through the hole in the security fence. The charred shell of the van used for the robbery was discovered outside Brussels the same evening. Police said that the theft was completed in no more than five minutes and that although the plane was full of passengers, none had been aware that the aircraft was being robbed.
The stolen parcels contained both rough and polished diamonds from businesses belonging to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre and were intended for different handlers in Switzerland. Antwerp has been a major diamond centre for centuries, with some eight in every 10 of the world’s rough diamonds and half of all polished diamonds passing through the city. About $200m worth of polished and rough stones pass through the Diamond Centre each day.
However, in recent years Antwerp has become a target for major diamond robberies, and the Diamond Centre has voiced fears that its role as a global leader could be threatened as a result.
In 2003, Antwerp was the scene of one of the biggest diamond robberies in history when thieves raided the Diamond Centre’s high-security vaults and stole precious stones, jewels and gold worth £64m.
The theft was only surpassed by a diamond heist at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport in 2005 when robbers stole some £75m worth of jewels from a cargo terminal.