POLICE forces in Europe are hunting a $48 million stash of diamonds stolen by eight armed robbers disguised as police officers in an overnight raid at Brussels airport.
The raid at Zaventem international airport is one of the biggest diamond robberies in history. It took a highly trained professional gang just three minutes to hold up a Swiss passenger jet before escaping into the night.
Belgian police were baffled by a robbery that took place with precision, military timing and apparent insider knowledge, allowing the gang to aim for the delivery of a diamond consignment within a 15-minute time window.
Wearing masks, hooded police anoraks and armed with machine guns equipped with laser sights, the robbers struck at 7.47pm local time on Monday night, just before the aircraft they sought was cleared for take-off.
The gang’s target was a Brink’s diamond and jewellery services truck that had just finished loading the 8.05pm Helvetic Airways flight 2L789 bound for Zurich.
For security reasons, the valuable cargo is loaded on the runway just minutes before the plane takes off.
After cutting through a security perimeter fence near the plane the robbers used two black vehicles, a Mercedes van and an Audi car, both equipped with blue flashing police lights, to race across the tarmac.
Four armed men left each vehicle and held up the aircraft’s pilot, co-pilot and security guards.
The robbers then forced open its cargo bay doors and took out about 120 packages containing mostly diamonds, which represented only part of the cargo, thought to be worth more than $90 million.
After loading the valuables, the eight men fled as security and police alarms were triggered.
The robbers drove at high speed through the same gap in the security cordon. No shots were fired and the robbery was so fast the passengers on board the plane saw nothing.
The first they knew of the attack was when their flight was cancelled minutes later.
The van was later recovered burnt out nearby. The Audi and the eight men have vanished, triggering a manhunt in Belgium and the Netherlands.
”They wanted to pass themselves off as cops,” said Anja Bijnens, a spokesman for the Brussels prosecutor. ”This was not a random robbery. It was well prepared; these were professionals.”
The diamonds had come from Antwerp, known as the world capital of diamond cutting.
”It’s one of the biggest robberies we’ve seen,” Caroline De Wolf, a spokesman for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, said on Tuesday.
”It would be at about $US50million in rough and polished diamonds. It is a huge amount.”
Antwerp’s diamond industry is carrying out an internal investigation alongside the police inquiry, amid concerns over the ease with which the robbers, acting on inside information, made their raid and escaped.
”This is causing quite some unrest,” said Ms De Wolf. ”It was incredible how easy it all went. This is mainly rough diamonds from Antwerp. They can just be sold and will soon be gone.”