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Masked gunmen snatch $50 million in diamonds from Brussels airport, police say

A gate is locked by a chain near to where men made a whole in a fence next to the tarmac at Brussels international airport, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. AP Photo/Yves Logghe

A gate is locked by a chain near to where men made a hole in a fence next to the tarmac at Brussels international airport, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
AP Photo/Yves Logghe

(CBS/AP) BRUSSELS - Eight masked gunmen forced their way through the security fence at Brussels' international airport, drove onto the tarmac and snatched some $50 million worth of diamonds from the hold of a Swiss-bound plane without firing a shot.

The gang responsible for one of the biggest diamond heists in recent years used two black vehicles with a flashing blue police lights in their raid late Monday, said Anja Bijnens, spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor's office.

"They tried to pass themselves off as police officers," Bijnens said Tuesday. The robbers wore outfits resembling dark police clothing and got away with 120 parcels, mostly containing diamonds but some also holding precious metals.

Police said they found a burnt-out minivan believed to be involved in the robbery near the airport later Monday night.

The heist was estimated at some $50 million in diamonds, said Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Center. `'What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum," De Wolf said.

The robbers forced their way through a perimeter fence at a place where two work sites obstructed a clear view, Bijnens said. There were no details about how the hole was opened but airport authorities said it must have taken more than simply blasting through it with a vehicle.

The robbers drove up to the Swiss passenger plane some 20 minutes before departure time, brandishing their machine guns. Then they methodically broke into the hold, which was accessed from outside, to choose their loot.

Passengers were unable to see the drama beneath them, said Bijnens.

The robbers finished their clinical operation with a high-speed departure through the same hole in the fence, completing the theft within barely five minutes, Bijnens said.

Airport spokesman Jan Van Der Cruijsse could not explain how the area could be so vulnerable to theft. "We abide by the most stringent rules," he said.

The Swiss flight, bound for Zurich and operated by Helvetic Airways, was canceled.

  • Crimesider Staff

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