Diamonds are forever

2013-02-24 10:00

Information was the only weapon the heist gang really needed, writes Andrew Higgins

They arrived at Brussels Airport armed with automatic weapons and dressed in police uniforms in two vehicles equipped with blue police lights.

But their most important weapon was information: the eight hooded gangsters, who, on Monday evening, seized diamonds worth tens of millions of dollars from a passenger plane preparing to depart for Switzerland, knew exactly when to strike – just 18 minutes before takeoff.

Forcing their way through the airport’s perimeter fence, the thieves raced, police lights flashing, to Flight LX789, which had just been loaded with diamonds from a Brink’s armoured van from Antwerp, Belgium, and was getting ready for an 8.05pm departure for Zurich.

“There is a gap of only a few minutes between the loading of valuable cargo and the moment the plane starts to move,” said Caroline De Wolf, a spokesperson for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, an industry body that promotes the diamond business in Belgium.

“The people who did this knew there was going to be this gap and when.”

They also knew they had to move swiftly in a secure airport zone swarming with police officers and security guards. Waving guns that the Brussels prosecutors’ office described as “like Kalashnikovs”, they calmly ordered ground staff workers and the pilot, who was outside the plane making a final inspection, to back off and began unloading scores of gem-filled packets from the cargo hold.

Without firing a shot, they then sped away into the night with booty that the Antwerp Diamond Centre said was worth about $50?million (R443?million), but which some Belgian news media reported as worth much more.

The thieves’ only error? They got away with 120 packets of diamonds but left some gems behind in their rush.

“They were very, very professional,” said Brussels prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch, who said the whole operation lasted barely five minutes. The police, she added, are now examining whether the thieves had inside information. “This is an obvious possibility.”

Passengers, already on board the plane awaiting takeoff, had no idea anything was amiss until they were told to disembark because their Zurich-bound flight, operated by Helvetic Airways, had been cancelled.

“I am certain this was an inside job,” said Doron Levy, an expert in airport security at the French risk management company, Ofek. The theft, he added, was “incredibly audacious and well-organised,” and beyond the means of all but the most experienced and strong-nerved criminals.

“In big jobs like this we are often surprised by the level of preparation and information: they know so much they probably know the employees

by name.”

The police have yet to make any arrests related to the airport robbery, but a burnt-out white van believed to have been used by the robbers was later found near the airport.

Scrambling to crack a crime that has delivered an embarrassing blow to the reputation of Brussels Airport and Antwerp’s diamond industry, the Belgian police are now looking into possible links with earlier robberies at the same airport.

The airport, which handles nearly daily deliveries of diamonds to and from Antwerp, the world’s leading diamond trading centre, has been targeted on three previous occasions since the mid-1990s by thieves using similar methods to seize gems and other valuables. Most of the culprits in earlier robberies have been caught.

Jan Van Der Cruysse, a spokesperson for the airport, insisted that security was entirely up to international standards, but “what we face is organised crime with methods and means not addressed in aviation security measures as we know them today”.

The robbery also signalled how vulnerable sprawling airport complexes can still be, despite a steady tightening of security measures since the attacks in the US on September 11 2001.

Most of these have been aimed at screening passengers inside the terminal buildings, not at securing the tarmac outside.

“This will give everyone a cold shower – everyone from the homeland security department in the US to the airline transport industry and insurance companies worldwide,” said John Shaw of SW Associates, a risk management company in Paris.

“You have to rethink the whole game — how to approach security on a large, static target like an airport.”

The robbery has also rattled Antwerp’s diamond industry 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 fact that this happened is a big problem for us. We have our number one position to defend. Security is obviously very important,” said De Wolf, from the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.

“We are shocked by the fact this could even happen. We are all wondering, ‘How is this possible?’”

Diamonds traded in Antwerp last year, she said, had a total value of $51.9?billion, accounting for 80% of the world’s rough diamond trade and 50% of trade in polished gems.

The great plane robbery

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