Armed robbers disguised as police have stolen $50 million (37 million euros) worth of diamonds at a Brussels airport. Officials have said the heist was committed by "professionals" who did not fire a single shot.
The theft was "one of the biggest" ever, a spokeswoman for the Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC), the global dealers syndicate, said Tuesday.
A gang of eight hooded thieves wearing dark police-like clothing pulled onto the tarmac at Zaventem airport Monday evening just before 8:00 p.m. (1900 GMT) driving two black vehicles with flashing blue police lights, said Anja Bijnens, a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor’s office.
"They tried to pass themselves off as police officers," Bijnens said, adding that the robbers, who were carrying machine guns, forced their way through security barriers and sped towards a Swiss passenger plane that was about to take off.
The thieves forced open the cargo hold of the plane and got away with 120 parcels, mostly containing diamonds but also some precious metals.
The pilot, co-pilot and staff from a Brink's armored car that transported the gems were held up but "no shots were fired and no-one was injured," Bijnens said, adding the robbery was over "within minutes."
Bijnens said the passengers onboard the plane "saw nothing." The flight, operated by Helvetic Airways and bound for Zurich, was canceled.
"This was not a random robbery," Bijnens said. "It was well prepared – these were professionals."
Officials said there was not yet any information on the identity of the culprits. But police found a burnt-out minivan near the airport later Monday night, which they believed was involved in the heist.
A 'gigantic sum'
The theft was estimated at $50 million in diamonds, said Carline De Wolf of the AWDC.
"What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum," De Wolf said, adding that the diamond community was "shocked by the brutal heist."
According to the AWDC, the global diamond business is worth more than $60 billion annually, with $200 million worth of stones moving in and out of the diamond hub of Antwerp each day.
Belgian media reported that Monday's robbery was the fifth of its kind at the Brussels airport in the last 18 years, and the diamond industry has been the target of a number of high-profile robberies in the last decade.
In February 2005, some 75 million euros worth of diamonds and jewels being shipped to Antwerp were stolen from a KLM airlines vehicle at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. But the record theft for diamonds took place in February 2003, when 100 million euros worth of stones were taken from a vault at the Antwerp Diamond Center.
dr/slk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)