$50 million heist challenges Belgian diamond industry, Antwerp most to lose

The theft of $50 million in diamonds from the Brussels Airport Monday night may be due to airport police under-staffing, and could shake confidence in Belgium's multibillion dollar diamond industry.

Yves Logghe/AP
Airport security officers stand near a broken fence next to the tarmac at Brussels Airport. Police on Tuesday were looking for eight men who made a hole in an airport security fence, drove onto the tarmac, and stole $50 million in diamonds from the hold of a Swiss-bound plane.

Only “a few minutes”: That is all the time that thieves needed to steal an estimated $50 million worth of diamonds from Brussels Airport in Belgium.

At a press conference today, Anja Bijnens, a spokesperson for the Belgian public prosecutor, said eight masked and armed men robbed a passenger plane Monday night that was preparing for departure to Zürich, Switzerland, even as employees of a high-value transport company loaded the cargo hold.

The thieves took “120 packages, mostly holding diamonds” from the plane's cargo hold. According to local media reports, they were rough diamonds, making them more difficult to trace back – and thus easier to sell on the black market.

The men brandished guns at the guards and the pilots, but nobody was injured, Ms. Bijnens said. The men were masked and wore outfits that resembled police uniforms. The eight men were able to gain access to the tarmac by destroying a fence, and escaped in two black cars.

Antwerp, considered Belgium's No. 2 city after Brussels, is itself a crucial axis in the world's diamond trade. Antwerp imported $12.9 billion of polished diamonds last year and exported $13.2 billion. Its trade in rough diamonds was largely identical: $12.2 billion imported and $13.5 billion exported.

Caroline De Wolf, a representative of the Belgian diamond sector, told local newspaper De Standaard that she fears the heist could damage Antwerp's position in the diamond market. “There is a real chance that this can become a problem for Antwerp,” she said, adding that she hopes the airport can improve security.

It is not the first such incident in Brussels Airport. In 2000, armed men also were able to steal diamonds from a plane at the airport.

Ben Weyts, a member of the Belgian parliament, pointed out on a Dutch radio station that responsibility for airport security lies with three different parties: airport police, the Brussels Airport Company, and the Belgian federal police. But he added that the airport police is “extremely understaffed.”

“At the time of the heist eight airport police officers were on duty, but only two were authorized to patrol and secure the fence, which is 22 kilometers [13.6 miles] long,” Mr. Weyts said.

“When you can just drive a car onto the tarmac by destroying a fence, that's a bit too easy,” he said. However, he pointed out that air travel is still “one of the safest ways” of transporting diamonds.

Belgian media point out that the robbers seemed to know their way around the tarmac. That they were aware of diamonds scheduled to be loaded also suggests they had “assistance from the inside,” said Weyts.

Belgian Vice Minister for Transport Melchior Wathelet wants to investigate whether valuable goods should be transported by passenger planes, the Belgian state broadcaster reported today.

Theft is not the only security issue to arise recently at the Brussels Airport. Earlier this month a 12-year-old boy was able to board a plane there to Malaga, Spain, without a ticket or passport. The airport is investigating the matter.

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