More than 30 suspects in a spectacular $50 million diamond heist have been rounded up in three countries and at least some of the precious stones have been recovered, Belgian and Swiss officials said today.
The sweep operation started Tuesday with an arrest of a man in France and Swiss police arrested six other people said Anja Bijnens of the state prosecutor's office in Brussels. Early today, some 250 Belgian police officers arrested 24 more people in the Brussels area, Bijnens said.
The robbery was carried out on Feb. 18 when a vehicle drove through a fence at a Brussels airport and men dressed as cops swiped 120 packages of diamonds from the belly of a Fokker-100 jetliner. The mostly uncut diamonds were being transferred from the Antwerp diamond district to Zurich, Switzerland.
The Frenchman arrested in France is believed to have been one of eight robbers who was the tarmac during the heist.
"We at this point believe that the man arrested in France yesterday participated in the event on the runway, and he is very well known to police," Bijnens said today. "Belgium has already asked for the extradition of the suspect in France."
Geneva prosecutor's spokesman Vincent Derovand told ABC News that eight people were arrested on Tuesday, but after initial investigation, only two were detained – a businessman and a Geneva lawyer and both are accused of receiving stolen goods and obstructing justice.
"We are trying to estimate the value of a large quantity of diamonds that were recovered," Derovand said. The police also confiscated around 100,000 Swiss Francs ($110,000). Belgian police recovered an undisclosed amount of cash, Bijnens said.
It is a breakthrough in a robbery that was described by the Belgian authorities a "perfect" crime, a precision Hollywood style heist during which no one was injured. The robbery was one of most daring in years, a quick operation that was over before most passengers aboard the plane had any idea of what had happened.
The Helvetic Airways plane was on the tarmac at the Brussels International Airport and was ready for a takeoff to Zurich. As stewardesses went through final safety checks on board, Brinks security guards outside finished loading the cargo of cut and uncut diamonds from their armored car. For security reasons, high value shipments are always loaded on the plane on the runway, minutes before takeoff.
Suddenly, what looked like two police vehicles, one of them a Mercedes van, and an Audi. raced up to the aircraft with blue lights flashing. Eight armed men wearing police uniforms and balaclavas over their faces jumped out and held up the aircraft's pilot, co-pilot and security guards.
The robbers then forced open its cargo doors and took out about 120 packages containing mostly diamonds, After loading the valuables, the eight men fled as security and police alarms were triggered.
The robbers drove at high speed through the same gap in the security cordon that they had opened in front of the aircraft on the runway. The raid took place without a shot being fired.
The robbery lasted only five minutes and was so quickly that the passengers on board the plane saw nothing. The first time they learned of the attack was when their flight was cancelled.
The estimated value of the stolen diamonds was about $50 million, according to Caroline de Wolf a spokeswoman for the Antwerp World Diamond Center, who welcomed the news of arrests.
"We are glad with what we heard this morning," De Wolf told ABC News. "This is a very significant breakthrough in the investigation."
Bijnens said detectives are trying to determine whether the robbers were part of an established ring.