Thieves in Belguim make off with $50 million in diamonds

PARIS -- Heavily armed robbers disguised as police officers stole $50 million worth of diamonds in a spectacular raid at Brussels' international airport, authorities said Tuesday.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Monday, two black cars with flashing blue lights smashed through a gate and raced up to a plane on the tarmac, Ine Van Wymersch of the Brussels prosecutor's office told reporters. The vehicles pulled up in front of an armored security van that had stopped next to the plane, which was waiting to takeoff.

Van Wymersch said four men wearing police uniforms and balaclavas and carrying machine guns leaped out of each car.

"They obviously wanted everyone to think they were police officers," Van Wymersch said.

The men forced open the door of the plane's hold and removed around 120 parcels, reported to contain cut and uncut diamonds.

The pilot, the copilot and the two drivers of the security vehicle from the Brinks worldwide security firm were ordered to hand over valuables. No shots were fired and nobody was injured in the assault, which lasted just five minutes, Van Wymersch said, adding that "the passengers saw nothing."

The aircraft was operated by Helvetic Airways, a partner of Swiss Air.

The thieves drove off at high speed before the alarm could be raised. One of the cars used in the robbery was later found burned out a short distance from the airport.

"This wasn't just a chance robbery," Van Wymersch said. "It was well-planned by professionals."

Investigators have refused to assign a precise value to the stolen haul.

"It was mostly diamonds. As far as we know there was no gold," Anja Bijnens, another prosecuting official, told reporters.

According to the World Diamond Center in Antwerp, which represents the city's jewel traders, the value of the stolen diamonds was at least $50 million.

"These were raw and cut diamonds from Anvers heading for Zurich and Switzerland," a WDC representative told French news agency Agence France-Presse, adding that it was one of the "biggest thefts of diamonds in recent years."

The representative refused to say who owned the diamonds or where they were heading.

"It's worrying that something like this could happen somewhere like an airport, that an armed gang could get on to the tarmac like this when around $200 million worth of diamonds leaves Anvers every day," added the WDC representative.

According to the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, investigators suspect the gang had an accomplice inside the airport.

--Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times