Authorities Arrest 31 In Tarmac Diamond Heist

May 08--LONDON -- Authorities in three countries have arrested 31 people in connection with a spectacular diamond heist in February that saw robbers disguised as police steal an estimated $50 million worth of gemstones from a parked plane on a Belgian airport runway.

Anja Bijnens in the Brussels prosecutor's office said Wednesday that at least some of the diamonds were recovered in Switzerland as well as a stash of money in Belgium. Police arrested 24 people in Belgium on Wednesday morning, plus one person in France and six others in Switzerland on Tuesday, authorities said.

The almost movie-like robbery was one of the most daring in years, a lightning-fast operation that was over before passengers aboard the plane had any idea of what had happened.

The Helvetic Airways jet on the tarmac at the Brussels international airport was ready for takeoff to Zurich on the evening of Feb. 18. As flight attendants went through final safety checks on board, Brinks security guards outside finished loading onto the plane a shipment of cut and uncut diamonds from an armored car.

Suddenly, what looked like two police vehicles, one of them a Mercedes van, raced up to the aircraft, blue lights flashing. Eight armed men wearing police uniforms and balaclavas that hid their faces jumped out.

After prying open the door to the plane's hold, the group made off with about 120 packages without firing a shot. The vehicles sped away through a hole cut in the airport fence; the van was later found burned out and abandoned.

The heist lasted about five minutes. Passengers saw nothing.

Bijnens said the 31 arrests were the result of a joint operation by police in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

"The investigation is ongoing and will have to determine who did what exactly. For now, there are diamonds recovered in Switzerland, and we are sure they came from the robbery," though it was unclear if the entire haul had been found, Bijnens said.

She added that "large amounts of money were found" in Belgium, but that it was too soon to say if the cache was related to the heist.

The World Diamond Center in Antwerp, which represents the Belgian city's many jewel merchants, valued the stolen diamonds at $50 million. The organization has declined to identify the owners of the stones.

About eight out of every 10 rough diamonds in the world and half of all polished ones pass through Antwerp, a center of the diamond trade for centuries.

"It's worrying that something like this could happen somewhere like an airport, that an armed gang could get onto the tarmac like this when around $200 million worth of diamonds leaves Antwerp every day," Caroline de Wolf, a spokeswoman for the World Diamond Center, said after the robbery.

Belgian media have reported that investigators suspect the thieves had an accomplice at the airport.

Bijnens said detectives are trying to determine whether the robbers were part of an established ring. The 24 people arrested in Belgium are expected to appear in court later Wednesday.

Copyright 2013 - Los Angeles Times

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