Airport Diamond Thieves May Have Had Inside Help

Correction Feb. 20, 2013

We incorrectly refer to Swissair as the flight carrier. The flight was actually operated by Helvetic Airways on behalf of Swiss International.

In a daring criminal caper, eight men cut through a perimeter security at Brussels Airport, drove onto the tarmac and removed millions of dollars worth of diamonds before driving off. Authorities say the theft lasted only minutes and no shots were fired.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Authorities in Belgium have an expensive mystery to solve. Last night, on the Brussels airport tarmac, masked gunmen attacked an armored vehicle as it was loading diamonds onto a plane. They made off with an estimated $50 million worth of uncut diamonds.

As we hear from NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, the attack was meticulously planned, leading some to believe the thieves had help from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELGIAN NEWS BROADCAST)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The news of the diamond heist has dominated Belgian television coverage all day. Eight masked gunmen, dressed as police, roared out onto the tarmac of the Brussels international airport, lights flashing.

JAN VAN DER CREYSS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: There were two vehicles, and they entered through a hole cut in the fence between two construction sites, says Jan Van der Creyss, a spokesman for the Brussels airport. The gang arrived at the exact moment that the contents of a Brink's armored truck were being discharged onto a Swissair flight. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The flight was operated by Helvetic Airways on behalf of Swiss International.]

(SOUNDBITE OF BELGIAN NEWS BROADCAST)

BEARDSLEY: The newscaster says several robbers brandished their automatic rifles at the pilots and ground crew, while the others unloaded the booty. Passengers couldn't see a thing. The gang left through the same hole through which they came, and went speeding off into the night. The operation took five minutes. Ine Van Wymeersch is a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor.

INE VAN WYMEERSCH: (Through translator) They forced the loading door of the plane open and took at least 120 packages. In these packages were diamonds. This was not just an off-chance hold-up. This was a well-prepared operation carried out by professionals.

BEARDSLEY: One of the vehicles used in the attack, a van, was later found several miles away. It had been completely burned. It's not the first time the Brussels airport has been targeted in a tarmac holdup. In fact, according to the Belgian media, it's the fifth time in less than 20 years. Journalist Justine Katz is covering the latest affair for RTBF Belgian television.

JUSTINE KATZ: (Through translator) The airport says it has increased security. At the same time, it's not a prison or a bank. What's incredible is the timing of the attack. They arrived at the perfect, precise moment to carry out the heist, so police believe they had help from the inside.

BEARDSLEY: Christopher Dickey is Paris bureau chief of Newsweek. He's followed plenty of jewel thefts, in his time in Europe. He says this is not a Brussels story but an Antwerp story.

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Antwerp is one of the great diamond centers of the world; and it has also been the scene of some of the great, great diamond thefts in history. It's interesting to note that this is taking place within a couple of days, exactly 10 years after the previous greatest theft in Antwerp's history.

BEARDSLEY: The port city of Antwerp is Belgium's second largest city and lies about 27 miles from the capital of Brussels. Antwerp, with its diamond dealers and stonecutting traditions, has been a key player in the international diamond trade for centuries. Some estimates say 70 percent of the world's diamonds pass through the medieval city.

Dickey says the 2003 heist was carried out by an Italian gang, who cracked high-security vaults in the center of the town. It was so spectacular, it inspired a British crime movie starring Michael Caine. Dickey says the current caper is also good grist for a film, but he says the robbers may want to note that the mastermind of the 2003 jewel theft was eventually caught, betrayed by DNA found on a sandwich.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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