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 for Switzerland on Monday evening 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 misstep: They got away with 120 packets of diamonds but left some gems behind in their rush.
"They were very, very professional," said the Brussels prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch, who said the whole operation lasted barely five minutes. The police, she added, are now examining whether the thieves had inside information.
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 expert in airport security at a French risk management company, Ofek. The theft, he added, was "incredibly audacious and well organized" and beyond the means of all but the most experienced criminals.
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.
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.