31 arrested in Belgian diamond heist on jet

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LONDON -- Thirty-one people have been arrested in a three-country sweep tied to a spectacular $50 million diamond heist at a Belgian airport in February, officials said Wednesday.

More than 250 officers with the Belgian federal police and the country's special branches fanned out across Brussels early Wednesday, conducting 40 house searches and arresting 24 suspects. A day earlier, six people in Switzerland were taken into custody as was one in France who authorities believe was among the masked thieves who took the gems from a jet at Brussels Airport.

At least some of the stolen diamonds have been recovered in Switzerland, as well as a stash of money and some luxury cars in Belgium, said Anja Bijnens, a prosecutor in Brussels.

The almost movie-like caper was one of the most brazen and daring in years, a lightning-fast strike that was over before passengers aboard the plane had any inkling of what happened.

The Helvetic Airways jet was ready for takeoff to Zurich, Switzerland, on the evening of Feb. 18. As flight attendants went through final safety checks on board, Brinks security guards outside finished unloading a shipment of cut and uncut diamonds from their armored car and onto the plane.

Suddenly, what looked like two police vehicles, one of them a Mercedes van, raced up to the aircraft, blue lights flashing. Eight armed men jumped out, wearing police uniforms but also ski masks that hid their faces. After prying open the door to the plane's hold, the group snatched about 120 packages and then sped away without firing a shot. The vehicles escaped through a hole cut in the airport fence; the van was later found burned out and abandoned.

The heist lasted about five minutes. Passengers saw nothing.

Ms. Bijnens said the 31 arrests resulted from a cooperative effort by police in Belgium, France, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

"The investigation is ongoing and will have to determine who did what exactly. For now, there are diamonds recovered in Switzerland, and we are sure they came from the robbery," Ms. Bijnens said, though it was unclear if the entire haul had been found. She added that "large amounts of money were found" in Belgium along with some luxury cars, but it was too soon to say if they were related to the heist.

Detectives are trying to determine whether the robbers were part of an established ring; of the 24 suspects arrested in the Brussels area, 10 have criminal histories, Ms. Bijnens said.

Belgian media have reported that investigators suspect that the thieves had an accomplice at the airport.

The Antwerp World Diamond Center, which represents the northern Belgian city's many jewel merchants, valued the stolen diamonds at $50 million. The organization has declined to identify the owners. About eight of every 10 rough diamonds in the world and half of all polished ones pass through Antwerp, a hub of the diamond trade for centuries.

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