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Arrests in Belgian diamond heist are a jeweler's best friend

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Yves Logghe/AP/File

(Read caption) Baggage carts make their way past a Helvetic Airways aircraft from which millions' of dollars worth of diamonds were stolen on the tarmac of Brussels international airport, in February. Police on Wednesday arrested 31 people in three countries in a Europe-wide manhunt, after $50 million in uncut gems were stolen in a daring assault at the Brussels airport this February.

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Finally, the denouement of one of the world’s largest diamond heists.

Police have netted 31 people in three countries in the past 24 hours in a Europe-wide manhunt, after $50 million in uncut gems were stolen in a daring assault at the Brussels airport this February.

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It’s a plotline that is worthy of a movie (it is probably being written at this very moment). And it gripped the Belgian public. Perhaps no group more so than the jewelers across town who always face a certain vulnerability, simply because of the value of the goods behind their glass counters.

“Everyone was fascinated, but of course the jewelry workers are the most interested,” says a woman at an antique jewelry shop in a famous covered gallery in historic Brussels who wished not to share her name.

The Belgian prosecutor’s office said that on Tuesday that seven were arrested, including six people in Switzerland and one man in France, who could be a mastermind of the robbery. And in the early dawn today, some 200 police fanned across Belgium and detained two dozen more suspects, many of them criminals known to the Belgian justice system.

"We believe the man arrested in France is one of the authors of the robbery," said Jean-Marc Meilleur of the Brussels prosecutor's office.  "It's the only person that we can say at this stage they could have participated in the events on the tarmac. Among those arrested in Belgium, at least 10 are known to the court, including for armed attacks. They are part of the Brussels criminal underworld." 

Smooth operation

The robbery occurred on the evening of Feb. 18, 2013. As passengers buckled up and the plane got ready for takeoff, eight men in police uniform in two cars drove through the fence of the Brussels airport and raced, with police lights flashing, across the runway.

Driving up to the plane, which had just been loaded with the gems, they held up the crew and forced open the cargo hold, loaded their vehicles with 120 packages totaling an estimated $50 million, and sped through the fence. No one was hurt. And it was so fast and precise that passengers are said to have not even been aware of what happened until it was over – and their flight was cancelled.

This isn't the first time Belgium has been the scene of a diamond heist. Antwerp, a diamond capital, is just a thirty minute drive away from Brussels. But the events of this one captivated the globe. When a security guard was asked at a higher-end Brussels jewelry store – where customers are attended to one by one and treated to champagne as they peruse fine jewels – if he had followed the news, he said “of course,” surprised by the question. He wasn’t authorized to share his name – or to even talk (instead he was busy looking at the customers filing in).

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Back at the antique store, the owner says her store has been held up twice in 20 years; the diamond store just in front of them was held up six months ago, she says. “We are relieved they were caught,” she says, “to know [the thieves] aren’t out there and ... the police are working and are not involved in it.”