THIRTY-ONE people have been arrested in three countries following a €40 million (£33.8m) diamond robbery at Brussels Airport three months ago.
A Frenchman, believed to have been one of the robbers who raided the airport on 18 February, was arrested in France, while six to eight people were detained in Geneva, and 24 in and around Brussels.
Police did not indicate what the other suspects’ roles might have been.
Officers said they have proof that diamonds found in Switzerland were part of the cache that was spirited away in the robbery that ranks among the biggest diamond thefts of recent times.
After two months of investigation of some of the suspects, police moved in. Suspects in France and Switzerland were detained on Tuesday, and yesterday Belgian police carried out a massive operation, with 250 officers involved in 40 house searches.
“In Switzerland, we have found diamonds that we can already say are coming from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found. And the investigation is still ongoing,” said Jean-Marc Meilleur, for the Brussels prosecutor’s office.
He said police had also found luxury cars.
Mr Meilleur would not disclose how the police had managed to track down the suspects.
In Geneva, police said that “a very important quantity of diamonds was seized” during the sweep “coming from the spectacular heist at Brussels airport”.
While Belgian authorities spoke of six detentions in Switzerland, Geneva police put it at eight, including a businessman and a lawyer. Authorities were alerted when suddenly a member of a major criminal organisation appeared in their city. The value of the diamonds was still being estimated.
It was the first breakthrough in a robbery that many had started comparing to an Ocean’s Eleven-type Hollywood script for its clinically clean execution during which no-one was injured.
On a cold winter evening, the diamonds had been loaded on a Helvetica Airways plane bound for Zurich when robbers, dressed in dark police clothing and hoods, drove through a hole they had cut in the airport fence in two black cars with blue police lights flashing.
They drove on to the tarmac, approached the plane, brandished machine guns at Brink’s security officers, off-loaded the diamonds, then made their getaway in an operation that barely took five minutes.
Later that night, investigators found the charred remains of a stolen Mercedes taxi most likely used in the raid, but little else.
The 121 stolen parcels contained both rough and polished stones bound for India from the diamond trading centre of Antwerp via Zurich. India now hosts the world’s largest diamond cutting and processing centre, in the city of Surat.
The ease and speed with which the robbery was carried out has raised questions about security at Zaventem airport outside Brussels.
Mr Meilleur confirmed the man held in France is suspected to be one of the robbers. “This person has a very heavy judicial background in France and his extradition to Belgium has been requested.”
Belgian authorities said that about ten of the 24 people detained in Belgium were known criminals. The suspects ranged in age from 30 to 50, they said.
The diamond industry was surprised by yesterday’s developments. “We can only be happy,” said Caroline De Wolf, for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. Ten years ago Antwerp was the scene of an even larger diamond raid, when robbers took €76 million in gems and uncut stones.