Skip to main content

Robbers breach gate, steal $50 million in diamonds at Belgian airport

By Laura Smith-Spark. Carol Jordan and Artur Osinski, CNN
updated 5:37 AM EST, Wed February 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thieves were dressed like police and threatened air crew at gunpoint, prosecutor says
  • Team of eight takes only minutes to steal the rough and polished stones from a plane's cargo hold
  • They breached the periphery and sped off with their haul in 2 vehicles, the spokesman says
  • The stones were en route from Antwerp to Zurich, Switzerland, Antwerp diamond center says

(CNN) -- Night had fallen. Some 20 airplane passengers had taken their seats for the short hop from Brussels, Belgium, to Zurich, Switzerland.

Unknown to them, a precious cargo was being loaded into the airplane hold along with their suitcases: $50 million in rough and polished diamonds.

But the diamonds would never reach their final destination.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Monday, eight masked men in two vehicles burst through the perimeter fence of Brussels Airport and sped toward the aircraft on the tarmac.

The men, who authorities said wore clothing resembling police uniforms, were heavily armed.

Masked thieves steal diamonds
How thieves got $50M in diamonds
Race on to find stolen rough diamonds
$50 million diamond heist at airport

While no shots were fired and no one was injured, the pilot, co-pilot and a transport security guard were all threatened at gunpoint, said Ine Van Wymersch, of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Brussels.

Within three minutes, the thieves had snatched the diamonds from the hold, said airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse.

Drag queens, fake beards and chocolates: Notable diamond heists

Moments later they left the scene, racing out through the same breach in the airport periphery through which they had entered.

The robbers, four in each car, had broken a hole in the fence where it ran between two construction sites, Van Wymersch said at a news conference.

"This was a very precise, almost military-organized and well-executed robbery," Van der Cruysse said.

He said it was a "big surprise" that such a slick heist been possible -- but pointed the finger at organized crime.

"We are an airport that is, as all international airports are, subject to very strict aviation security and safety regulations," he said.

The aircraft targeted was a regular passenger flight operated by Helvetic Airways on behalf of Swiss, Switzerland's national airline.

It's not yet clear how the thieves knew that the diamonds would be on board.

But this was not a chance holdup, said Van Wymersch, describing the men involved as "professionals."

Antwerp, the city known as the world's diamond-cutting capital, lies only about 25 miles away from Brussels.

The Antwerp World Diamond Centre has on average $200 million in stones coming in and out daily, and it takes security very seriously, a spokesman told CNN.

He was unable to confirm reports that gold and platinum were stolen along with the diamonds.

It's not the first time that Antwerp's centuries-old diamond trade has been targeted.

The city was the scene of a spectacular robbery in 2003 when thieves made off with the contents of more than 100 safes at the diamond center. Those gems were never recovered.

Some 34,000 jobs in the city are connected to the diamond trade, according to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, from mining company representatives to dealers to the craftsmen who polish the stones.

Netherlands art heist suspects arrested

3 arrested in massive maple syrup heist

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:46 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The tragic killing of two cops could not have happened at a worse time for a city embroiled in a bitter public battle over police-community relations, Errol Louis says.
updated 8:27 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony that led to the cancellation of a comedy film's release.
updated 9:51 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it's never looked better.
updated 11:21 AM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
More than 1.7 million children in conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine face an "extremely serious" situation, Unicef has warned.
updated 8:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Boko Haram's latest abductions may meet a weary global reaction, Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi says.
updated 5:34 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Drops, smudges, pools of blood are everywhere -- but in the computer room CNN's Nic Robertson reels from the true horror of the Peshawar school attack.
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
updated 4:48 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
updated 9:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
updated 12:01 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT