Updated May 8, 2013
Helvetic Airways aircraft at the Brussels international airport (Photo: Associated Press)
In a daring, commado-style operation, eight masked, heavily armed gunmen pulled off a lightening quick heist of more than $50 million worth of diamonds.
Update: May 8, 2013 Nearly three months after the spectacularly daring diamond heist at Brussels Airport, authorities announced on May 8, 2013 that at least 31 people – spread out over France, Switzerland and Belgium – have been detained in connection with the estimated $50 million theft.
The Associated Press reported that a Frenchman, who is believed to have been one of the airport robbers, was arrested in France, while eight people, including a lawyer, were detained in Geneva, and 24 in and around Brussels.
“In Switzerland, we have found diamonds that we can say are coming from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found. And the investigation is ongoing,” said Jean-Marc Meilleur, spokesperson for the Brussels prosecutor’s office. In Geneva, a police statement said “a very important quantity of diamonds was seized” during the roundup of suspects.
A Swiss investigator told reporters that almost a third of the stolen diamonds were seized in the Geneva raids and that about $110,000 in cash and a number of luxury cars were also confiscated. The unnamed investigator said all eight of those detained in Geneva were middlemen and intermediaries involved in the cutting and selling of the stolen diamonds.
For centuries, Antwerp has been the world’s center of diamond trading and remains so today. According to a spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre about $200 million in diamonds enter and leave Antwerp daily, with about 99 percent of that moving through the Brussels Airport in several shipments each week. The spokesperson said that diamonds traded in Antwerp last year had a total value of $51.9 billion, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s rough diamond trade and 50 percent of trade in polished stones. The only other major diamond center is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Diamond brokers from around the world store their diamonds and gems – sometimes for as little as a day – in one or more of the 160 safety-deposit boxes located in an underground vault at the Antwerp Diamond Centre. Once a deal is brokered for the sale of the diamonds, shipment is arranged through the Zaventem International Airport in Brussels. The diamonds are placed in small packets and driven by armored Brinks vans to the airport. On the 25-mile trip to the airport, the Brinks vans are accompanied by armed escorts that peel away once the Brinks vans arrive at the airport’s locked gate.
On the evening of February 18, 2013, eight heavily armed masked men were outfitted in airport security uniforms and drove two black vehicles that had police-style lights on top. They arrived at Zaventem International Airport in Brussels in darkness intent on pulling off the most audacious heist in airport history. They knew, due to construction near the main security gate, that gate would be unlocked. Using wire cutters, they opened a section of the other 10-foot-high security fence on the perimeter of the airport and then waited eight minutes for the Brinks van to unload some 125 packets of diamonds in the cargo hold of Flight LX789, a Helvetic Airways jet waiting to depart in the next 18 minutes for Zurich, Switzerland.