BRUSSELS -- They arrived at Brussels Airport armed with automatic weapons and dressed in police uniforms aboard two vehicles equipped with blue police lights. But their most important weapon was information: The eight hooded gangsters who seized diamonds worth tens of millions of dollars from a passenger plane preparing to depart Monday evening 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 Brinks armored van from Antwerp, Belgium, and was getting ready for an 8:05 p.m. 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 spokeswoman 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 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 a booty that the Antwerp Diamond Centre said was worth around $50 million, but which some Belgian news media reported as worth much more.
The thieves' only mishap: 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.
Police, she added, are now examining whether the thieves had inside information. "This is an obvious possibility," she said.
Passengers, already on board the plane awaiting takeoff, had no idea anything was amiss until they were told to disembark as their Zurich-bound flight, operated by Helvetic Airways, had been canceled.
"I am certain this was an inside job," said Doron Levy, an airport security expert at Ofek, a French risk management firm. The theft, he added, was "incredibly audacious and well organized," 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."
He said the crime's audacity recalled in some ways the so-called Pink Panther robberies, a long series of brazen raids on high-end jewelers in Geneva, London and elsewhere blamed on criminal gangs from the Balkans. But he said the military precision of Monday's diamond robbery and the targeting of an airport suggested a far higher level of organization than the cruder Pink Panther operations.
Police have yet to make any arrests related to the airport robbery, said the prosecutor, but have found a burned-out white van that they believe may have been used by the robbers. It was found near the airport late Monday.
Scrambling to crack a crime that has delivered an embarrassing blow to the reputation of Brussels Airport and Antwerp's diamond industry, 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 center, 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 those robberies have been caught.
Airport spokesman Jan Van Der Cruysse insisted that security was entirely up to international standards, but "what we face is organized crime with methods and means not addressed in aviation security measures as we know them today." Precautions designed to combat would-be bombers and other threats, he added, could not prevent commando-style raids by heavily armed criminals. "This involves much more than an aviation security problem."
The robbery also signaled how vulnerable sprawling airport complexes can still be, despite a steady tightening of security measures since the 9/11 attacks in the United States. 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 U.S. to the airline transport industry and insurance companies worldwide," said John Shaw of SW Associates, a risk management firm in Paris.world