Deplaned: $50m diamonds

Brussels, Feb. 19: Eight masked gunmen have stolen diamonds worth $50 million (Rs 270 crore) in less than five minutes and proved wrong a lament of highway robbers that an airplane cannot be waylaid.

The robbers blasted their way through a fence at Brussels' international airport and carted away the precious stones from a passenger plane that was scheduled to take off in 20 minutes. The biggest diamond heist in recent memory was pulled off without firing a single shot.

The mix of rough and cut stones had arrived at the airport by road from the Belgian port city of Antwerp, the world's biggest diamond trading centre.

The theft delivers a blow to Antwerp's role as a diamond centre at a time when the city, a diamond trading and cutting hub for centuries, is struggling to fend off a challenge from low-wage diamond cutters in India and elsewhere.

The diamonds were to be flown on the passenger flight to Zurich, an important transit point in the global diamond business.

Belgian state broadcaster VRT reported the total value was $467 million (Rs 2,521 crore). A spokesperson for the Antwerp Diamond Centre said the value may be closer to $50 million. "In any case it's one of the biggest robberies we've seen," she said.

Unlike a car or a truck, an airplane cannot be waylaid by robbers once it's on its way, and it is considered to be very secure before departure and after the plane's arrival because the aircraft is always within the confines of an airport ' which are normally highly secured.

On Monday night, the robbers used some of the oldest tricks in the trade. "They tried to pass themselves off as police officers," Anja Bijnens, a spokesperson for the Brussels prosecutor's office, said today.

The gang used two black vehicles with flashing blue police lights. The robbers, who wore outfits resembling dark police clothing, got away with 120 parcels, mostly containing diamonds but some also holding precious metals.

The robbers forced their way through a perimeter fence, at a place where two work sites obstructed a clear view, Bijnens said. There were no details about how the hole was opened but airport authorities said it must have taken more than simply blasting through it with a vehicle.

The robbers drove up to the Swiss passenger plane some 20 minutes before departure time, brandishing their machine guns. Then they methodically broke into the hold, which was accessed from outside, to choose their loot.

Passengers were unable to see the drama beneath them, said Bijnens.

The robbers finished their clinical operation with a high-speed departure through the same hole in the fence, completing the spectacular theft within barely five minutes, Bijnens said.

Airport spokesman Jan Van Der Cruijsse could not explain how the area could be so vulnerable to theft. "We abide by the most stringent rules," he said.

The Swiss flight operated by Helvetic Airways was cancelled.

The police said they found a burnt-out minivan believed to be involved in the robbery near the airport later on Monday night.

The heist was estimated at some $50 million in diamonds, said Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Center. "What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum," De Wolf said.

A decade ago the port city of Antwerp was the scene of what was probably one of the biggest diamond heists in history, when robbers took precious stones, jewels, gold and securities from the high-security vaults at Antwerp's Diamond Center, yielding loot that police in 2003 estimated to be worth about $100 million at the time.

Monday's heist was a fresh blow to the Antwerp industrial diamond centre that prides itself on security and discretion.

"This is causing quite some unrest," said De Wolf. "It was incredible how easy it all went. This is worrying in terms of competitiveness, since other diamond centres are ready to pounce and take over our position."

Antwerp's Diamond Centre stands in the heart of the high-surveillance diamond district where police and hundreds of cameras work around the clock, and security has been beefed up further since the spectacular 2003 robbery. Shipments to the airport leave aboard armoured trucks on an almost daily basis.

The shipment was not extraordinary, since on any given day, some $200 million in polished and rough stones go through the Antwerp diamond hub.

Monday's parcels contained rough and polished stones heading for Switzerland, where many of the 120 parcels were intended for different handlers.

The insurance for air transport ' handled sometimes by airlines themselves or external insurance companies ' is usually relatively cheap because it's considered to be the safest way of transporting small high value items, logistics experts say.

Philip Baum, an aviation security consultant in Britain, said the robbery was worrying ' not because the fence was breached, but because the response did not appear to have been immediate. That, he said, raised questions as to whether alarms were ringing in the right places.

"It does seem very worrying that someone can actually have the time to drive two vehicles onto the airport, effect the robbery, and drive out without being intercepted," Baum said.

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