By Bruno Waterfield, Brussels
Eight armed robbers disguised as police officers and brandishing machine guns have disappeared into thin air with diamonds worth £32 million after pulling off an audacious lightening raid at Brussels airport.
The heist at Zaventem international airport on Monday night is one of the biggest diamond robberies in history and the highly trained professional gang took just three minutes to hold up a Swiss passenger jet before making their escape.
Belgian police are baffled after the robbery which took place with clockwork precision, military timing and apparent insider knowledge allowing the gang to target the delivery of a diamond consignment within an 11 minute time window.
The robbers wearing masks, hooded police cagoules and armed with machine guns equipped with laser sights, struck at 7.47pm local time on Monday night just before the aircraft they had targeted 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, weakened by construction work, within several hundred feet of the Swiss Fokker 100 airliner, the robbers used two black vehicles, a Mercedes van and Audi A8 car, both equipped with blue flashing police lights to race across the airport tarmac.
Screeching to a halt alongside the Brinks van and the passenger jet, four heavily armed men poured out of each vehicle and held up the aircraft pilot, co-pilot and security guards.
The robbers then forced the doors of the cargo bay of the plane and took out about 120 packages containing mostly diamonds, which only represented a portion of a cargo thought to be worth over £60 million ($100m).
After loading the loot, the eight men, aware that security and police alarms had been triggered, quickly fled in their vehicles with flashing police beacons to throw any hot pursuit off their trail.
The robbers made off at high speed through the same gap in the security cordon they had opened in front of the aircraft on the runway.
The raid took place without a shot being fired and was so quick, around 180 seconds that passengers on board the plane “saw nothing” and the first they knew of the heist was when their flight was cancelled minutes later.
One vehicle, the Mercedes van was later recovered burned out nearby, the second car and the eight men have disappeared without trace triggering a manhunt across 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 are thought to have been from Antwerp, a major European trading centre for the gems where £130 million ($200m) in stones are traded every day.
A decade ago the Belgian city of Antwerp, the world capital of diamond-cutting, was the scene of one of the biggest diamond heists in history, when robbers took $100 million in gems and uncut stones.
“It’s one of the biggest robberies we’ve seen, said Caroline De Wolf, a spokesman for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. “It would be at about 50 million dollars in rough and polished diamonds. It is a huge amount.”
Antwerp’s diamond industry carrying out its own internal investigation alongside that of the Belgian police amid concerns over the ease by which robbers, acting on detailed 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.”
Because many of the diamonds are uncut, the chance of recovering the stolen gems is “very small”. “This is mainly rough diamonds from Antwerp. They are not cut and so there is certainly no certificate. They can just be sold and will soon be gone,” said Ms de Wolf.