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Heavily armed robbers disguised as police made off with $50 million worth of diamonds in a spectacular heist on the tarmac at Brussels airport, prosecutors and diamond dealers said Tuesday.
The Monday night robbery at Zaventem airport just before 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) was "one of the biggest" ever, said a spokeswoman for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), the global dealers' syndicate.
The Brussels raid saw a gang of eight hooded thieves pull up on the runway in two black vehicles with blue police-like markings, Brussels prosecutors' spokeswoman Anja Bijnens told a press conference.
They forced their way through security barriers and sped towards a Swiss passenger aircraft about to take off, forcing open the cargo hold to reach gems -- rough and cut -- that had already been loaded, she said.
Bijnens said the thieves were wearing police uniforms and carrying machine guns, adding: "They wanted to pass themselves off as cops."
They seized at least 120 packages, which was only part of the shipment, she said.
The pilot, co-pilot and staff from a Brink's armoured car that transported the gems were held up but "no shots were fired and no-one was injured," Bijnens said of a robbery that was over "within minutes."
She said the thieves made off at high speed through the same gap in the security cordon they had opened in front of unsuspecting ground staff and travellers, adding that the passengers on board the plane "saw nothing" and that the aircraft, bound for Zurich, did not leave Brussels.
The Swiss air company said the flight was a regular route operated by its partner Helvetic Airways.
According to the AWDC, the global diamond business is worth more than $60 billion each year.
Some $200 million worth of stones move in and out of Antwerp every day, the spokeswoman added.
The diamond community was "shocked by the brutal heist," said Caroline De Wolf of the AWDC in a subsequent statement. She said traders want "additional security measures" implemented at the airport.
In February 2005, some 75 million euros worth of diamonds and jewels being shipped to Antwerp were stolen in a KLM vehicle at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
But the record for a theft of diamonds was in Belgium, in February 2003, when 100 million euros worth of stones were nabbed from the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Centre.
Asked to comment, Brussels airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse said: "There are very clear and very strict international security standards and we stick strictly to them."
Neither the prosecutor's office nor the AWDC official would give any details as to whom the shipment belonged. The prosecutor's office said the packages contained mainly diamonds.
The AWDC said the haul was worth $50 million dollars.
One of the vehicles was found afterwards completely burnt out near the airport, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said.
A specialist Belgian prosecutors unit dealing with organised crime is "pursuing all lines of enquiry," Bijnens said, and is collaborating also with Swiss authorities.
"This was not a random robbery," she stressed. "It was well-prepared -- these were professionals."
Belgian Justice Minister Annemie Turtelboom was on hand at the airport as the investigation gathered pace.
There are more than 4,500 diamond dealers in Antwerp, the hub for a worldwide industry going back at least 500 years, and more than twice as many jobs dependent on the trade, the AWDC said.
Eight in 10 of all rough and half of all polished diamonds are traded in Antwerp, they added.