More than 30 people were arrested in coordinated raids across three countries in connection with the February theft of $50 million in diamonds at Brussels Airport.
Belgian police detained 24 people this morning in raids at about 40 homes, mostly in Brussels, Anja Bijnens, a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor’s office, told reporters today in the Belgian capital. Swiss police arrested eight people yesterday, six of whom were later released, according to the Geneva prosecutor’s office. Another person was detained in France yesterday.
Police seized 100,000 Swiss francs ($107,000) in cash and a “large quantity” of diamonds in Switzerland, said Vincent Derouand, a spokesman for the Geneva prosecutor’s office. A “large amount” of money was found in the raids in Belgium, which involved 250 police officers, Bijnens said.
In the Feb. 18 theft, armed gunmen took at least 120 packets of diamonds at Brussels Airport as they were being loaded onto a plane bound for Zurich. The packets contained rough and polished stones valued at $50 million, according to Antwerp World Diamond Centre.
The eight masked men with machine guns and wearing police clothing breached the airport perimeter in two black vehicles with flashing blue lights and drove up to a Helvetic Air plane operated by Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. They stole the gems after they had been transferred from a Brink’s Co. security van into the cargo hold.
“It was very well organized, very swift, efficient and well planned,” Jan Van der Cruysse, a spokesman for the airport, said at the time. The thieves stopped at the plane for just three minutes and the whole operation took just over 10 minutes, he said.
The pilot, co-pilot and security agents were held at gunpoint during the theft. No shots were fired and no one was injured. The aircraft had 29 passengers on board.
Two out of the eight people arrested in Geneva yesterday are still in police custody and have been charged with handling stolen goods and assisting offenders, Derouand said. One is a businessman and the other is a lawyer working in Geneva, he said, declining to give further details.
Geneva prosecutors and police started investigating after an organized crime member was identified in the city two months ago, Derouand said. That person was arrested in France yesterday, he said. The Belgian authorities have requested the extradition of the French national, Bijnens said.
Brussels airport is 42 kilometers from Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city and the biggest trading hub for rough diamonds, handling four-fifths of the world’s trade.
“The breakthrough in the investigation is very good news,” Ari Epstein, chief executive officer of Antwerp World Diamond Centre, said in a statement. “The developments the Belgian authorities communicated this morning are very important and hopeful for the ongoing investigation.”
While Luxembourg also participated in the operation, there were no arrests in that country, Bijnens said.