31 Suspects In 3 Nations Nabbed In $50 Million Diamond Heist

May 8, 2013
Originally published on May 8, 2013 5:55 pm

Remember that brazen, right-out-of-the-movies diamond heist at Brussels' international airport on Feb. 18?

Now there's word from The Associated Press that "police on Wednesday claimed a major breakthrough in their investigation ... detaining 31 people in a three-nation sweep."

The Guardian adds that "police said the coordinated operations ended with 24 people arrested across Belgium, six in Switzerland, and one in France who was said to have taken part in the eight-man raid at Brussels' main airport." (Note: Though the Guardian uses the word "arrested," the AP says the suspects have been "detained" and that it isn't known yet how many will be formally charged.)

The BBC's account of the crime, one of the biggest diamond heists ever, underscores the dramatic scene that night in Brussels:

"Prosecutors described the thieves as 'professionals.' They had dressed as police, wore masks and were well armed. They forced their way through security barriers and drove towards [a] Helvetic Airways plane, forcing open the cargo hold to reach gems that had already been loaded. They snatched 120 packages before escaping through the same hole in the fence.

"Prosecutors said the whole operation took only about five minutes, no shots were fired and no-one was hurt."

According to the AP, "police say they have proof that diamonds found in Switzerland were part of the cache that was spirited away. ... The stolen parcels contained both rough and polished stones. The trail ran dry until the surprise announcement on Wednesday."

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Now, an item from the life-imitates-caper-movie department. On the evening of February 18th, eight robbers armed with machine guns outfitted with laser sights sped onto the tarmac at Brussel's airport and stole a shipment of diamonds from the belly of an airliner bound for Zurich. With split-second timing, they exited through a hole cut in an airport fence, burned a getaway car and appeared to have gotten away with $50 million worth of stolen gems.

But yesterday, police in Belgium, France and Switzerland rounded up more than 30 people they say were involved in that theft. What's known about them? Well, we're joined now from Brussels by reporter Daniel Michaels of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL MICHAELS: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And what do we know about the suspects who've been arrested in the big diamond theft?

MICHAELS: The police have not said much. What they've said so far is that the one person arrested in France is accused of being one of the eight on the runway holding a gun dressed as a policeman. The two who were detained and held under arrest in Switzerland apparently were trying to fence the diamonds, trying to sell them, but hadn't been involved in the robbery itself.

And they're not saying anything about the 24 arrested in Belgium who were arrested, it seems, right in the backyard of the airport or nearby. They are appearing in court today behind closed doors and the results of the decision by the judge, whether they will stay in jail and be charged, will be announced tomorrow, Thursday.

SIEGEL: Whoever these people are, they don't sound like amateurs.

MICHAELS: When the robbery happened, one of the universal reactions people had was, boy, that was well done. It really was like something out of a movie. As you said, the split-second timing, they were in and out of the airport in 11 minutes. They completed the robbery itself in three minutes. They didn't fire a shot. Obviously, they were well trained, well informed and a lot of planning went into this.

So far, it's pretty surprising that they were caught and especially 24 of them right in the backyard of the airport, apparently.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Now, there was lots of speculation back in February and one suspicion voiced was that someone on the inside of airport security could have or must have been in on this because they understood airport security so well. Any intimation of that since the arrests have been announced?

MICHAELS: None so far. The Belgium authorities have 24 hours to decide whether to charge and detain people who are arrested, so I would imagine that pretty soon we'll be learning some of that. But it seems almost impossible that this operation didn't happen with some kind of inside information.

SIEGEL: Another suspicion that we heard voiced after this robbery was that these guys acted with military discipline, they must have had military backgrounds. Anything like that been alleged?

MICHAELS: Yes, definitely alleged. No question they were well trained. So even if they didn't have military background, they had military-like training. But again, the authorities haven't said that any of these were ex-military, ex-paramilitary or anything like that. But a military, it would seem, would be proud to have people who operate with this efficiency.

SIEGEL: Now, in addition to the individuals who've been arrested, what do police say about the gems?

MICHAELS: A lot of gems recovered. I think they were still trying to count them and value them. When the robbery happened, the figure tossed around was $50 million worth, although I also heard from some people it could be well north of that. Sometimes there are questions about this for insurance and companies not wanting to really declare the full value.

And we may have a tally on how much was recovered, but honestly, we may never know actually how much was stolen.

SIEGEL: So far as we know, and I guess this the reason we can laugh a bit about this, so far as we know, nobody was injured in this diamond robbery.

MICHAELS: The robbery occurred flawlessly also and that nobody was hurt. Not a shot was fired. Nobody was hurt in the robbery and apparently, in the arrests, there were no mentions of injuries or any shots being fired either.

SIEGEL: Well, we're looking forward to identification of these men. When do the police have to say who these guys are?

MICHAELS: Unclear on that. The European system is very strict on protecting the accused. So there were no photographs of the people arrested, no names, not even nationalities, not even gender. They're just referred to as people. I would imagine over coming days, this will come out, especially if they're charged and that could happen as soon as tomorrow.

And then, I would imagine the plot will begin to reveal itself.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Daniel Michaels of The Wall Street Journal, speaking to us from Brussels. Thanks a lot.

MICHAELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.