In a brazen heist right out of the movies, thieves drove onto Belgium's airport tarmac and stole more than $50 million of diamonds from a plane without firing a single shot.
It took them fewer than five minutes to cut through an airport fence Monday night, drive up to a Helvetic jet in cars with flashing lights, hold up the pilot and security officials on the plane, and take 120 packages of rough and cut stones, according to the Belgium prosecutor's office. The men carried submachine guns, were dressed in police uniforms and camouflage masks.
"It was a well prepared operation. Robbers knew exactly when Brinks diamond and jewellery services truck would load" at 8:05 p.m., Ine Vanwymersch, told ABCNews.com.
Vanwymersch said the thieves "forced open the fence between two construction sites," allowing them onto the tarmac.
She said the pilot and co-pilot out of the plane doing a pre-flight safety check and were held them at gunpoint along with the plane's security detail, and it took the robbers "just three minutes" to unload the gems from the "belly" of the plane, referring to the luggage section.
"It took them another two minutes to get to the tarmac and to escape in two vehicles: a black Mercedes Vito van and a black Audi A8," Vanwymersch said. The left through the same hole in the fence, she said.
None of the plane's 20 passengers saw anything, and thieves kept details about themselves to a minimum.
"We don't know the color of their skin or the language they spoke. We cannot comment on it," Vanwymersch told ABC News.
One thing about them was clear, however.
"All eight were heavily armed," she said.
The heist is one of the largest diamond thefts in history and will raise serious questions about whether the thieves were tipped off to the location of the jewels by an insider, and how they could so easily drive onto the tarmac in a major European capital.
"It's quite remarkable that you can even get to the tarmac in [Brussels airport], with two vehicles and eight armed people," an incredulous Caroline De Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Antwerp Diamond Centre, which promotes the Belgian diamond business, told Belgian TV. "That it's possible to get the goods out of the aircraft, this is unacceptable."
The prosecutor's office said it was checking surveillance images, but it wasn't clear whether the video showed the robbers entering the airport.
The stolen gems had arrived at the airport by road from Antwerp, authorities said. Police are still searching for clues. They found the burned out Vito but have announced no other leads.
Antwerp is one of the world's leading diamond centers. Last year diamonds traded in the port city had a value of $51.9 billion, accounting for 80 percent of the world's rough diamond trade and 50 percent of the trade in polished gems. Belgium hasn't suffered as serious a theft as this since 2003 when thieves stole approximately $100 million worth of stones, jewels and gold from the Diamond Centre itself in Antwerp. Local media report that security has been beefed up since that attack, but today the airport could not explain why it was so vulnerable.
"We abide by the most stringent rules," airport spokesman Jan Van Der Crujsse told reporters.
The plane, bound for Zurich and operated by Swiss airlines, was ready to leave when the robbery occurred. It was subsequently cancelled, the airline said.
Usually, transporting valuables on a plane is seen as safer than using cars or trucks since a plane is always kept within the confines of an airport.
"We choose to transport goods via airplane precisely because of the safe and controlled nature of this means of transportation," de Wolf said in a statement emailed to reporters, acknowledging the heist would cause "significant" damage to Antwerp's reputation. "We do hope additional security measures can be put in place in order to safeguard a fluent and safe transport of diamonds."
Later in the day a second brazen jewel heist occurred in Paris' posh Printemps department store where thieves escaped with 3 million euros in jewelry, police said.
The two armed robbers entered the store about 6:45 p.m. They may have been wearing wigs and carried semi-automatic weapons and wore bullet-proof vests, according to French news reports. The thieves ordered a saleswoman to open the diamond cases, grabbed the stones and jewelry and escaped through a rear exit of the store. No one was injured.