With military precision, perfect timing and likely some inside help, a group of eight robbers managed to pull off one of the biggest diamond heists in history in Belgium and deal a damaging blow to Antwerp’s reputation as a global leader in the gem trade.
Decked out in police uniforms and driving official-looking vehicles, the thieves cut a hole in the fence surrounding the Brussels airport Monday evening and waited for just the right moment to strike. They watched as guards loaded packages of diamonds from a security truck onto a Swiss passenger jet bound for Zurich.
When the last package was put on board, the gang raced across the runway with blue lights flashing on top of their cars. Four jumped out of each vehicle, waving machine guns and forcing open the door of the aircraft with a crowbar. While one group held the guards, pilot and co-pilot at bay, the others grabbed 120 packages of rough and finished stones worth at least $50-million. Then they jumped back into the cars and sped off – all in a matter of minutes. It happened so fast, passengers on board the plane had no idea anything occurred until the flight was cancelled.
“It was well-prepared and very professional,” Ine Van Wymersch, a spokeswoman for the Belgian prosecutors’ office said at a press conference Tuesday in Brussels. “The whole operation took just a few minutes.”
Just how eight armed robbers knew exactly when to hit the plane remains a mystery, but police believe they must have had inside knowledge about when the stones would be loaded on board, which was only minutes before takeoff. Police later recovered one van believed to have been used by the robbers, but they have few other clues.
The theft could not have come at a worse time for Antwerp’s diamond business, which is facing falling sales and increased competition from low-cost competitors in India, Dubai and Asia. The city has been at the centre of the world’s diamond trade for more than 500 years and today nearly 2,000 businesses, from dealers to polishers and cutters, ply their trades there. The multibillion-dollar industry employs more than 30,000 people directly and indirectly in Antwerp and diamonds account for 5 per cent of Belgium’s exports.
But the industry has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis, which sent sales plunging. And Antwerp has seen its dominant position in the trade come under attack from offshore rivals, particularly in India. Things became serious enough that the industry and government banded together last year and produced a strategy, called Project 2020, to reclaim Antwerp’s position.
Part of the strategy included improving security, something that had been lacking for years – especially at the Brussels airport, which handles up to a dozen diamond shipments daily. A series of heists between 1995 and 2002, including one that netted more than $100-million worth of stones, led a dozen airlines to threaten to stop shipping valuables out of the airport. The government boosted security, but clearly not enough to prevent the newest theft.
One industry source said dealers take extreme care to provide security for shipments heading to the airport, which is about 30 minutes from Antwerp. “But when they get to the airport, we expect the airport to provide security,” the source said.
“We find it hard to understand how a robbery such as [Monday’s] heist could take place,” said Caroline De Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, which represents the industry. “We are currently awaiting the results of the investigation but we do fear the damage for Antwerp, the world’s leading trade centre, is significant.”
Belgium’s Minister of State for Transport, Melchior Wathelet, told Belgian radio Tuesday that the government will be reviewing whether police, and not airport staff, should accompany security trucks to airplanes when precious stones are loaded. He also said the government wouldn’t rule out banning these types of diamond transports if they are too dangerous. “We won’t take any risks with the security of travellers or workers,” he said.