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Belgium fears threat to diamond supremacy after massive heist

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* Armed robbers stole $50 mln of jewels

* Antwerp traders say airport is weak link

* Chance of recovering diamonds small if not found soon

BRUSSELS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Belgian authorities scrambled on Wednesday to fix holes that allowed one of the biggest jewellery heists in history, while dealers said they feared it helped put at risk the country's centuries-old dominance of the diamond trade.

Gun-toting robbers disguised as police stole diamonds worth some $50 million from a plane on a runway at Brussels airport on Monday evening without firing a shot, in an ice-cool operation that was over faster than a scene in an action movie.

They and the glittering loot fled into the night and are now assumed to be far away.

Junior minister for transport, Melchior Wathelet, on Wednesday ordered an audit of all security measures at the airport, including those concerning passenger protection.

The minister also asked OCAM, a body which analyses risks to the country such as from terrorism, to assess whether security surrounding the transport of diamonds and other valuable products was adequate.

The Antwerp World Diamond Centre, an industry federation, said those in the business were shocked by the theft and questioned how it could have taken place.

"The problem is that the Antwerp diamond sector could be at a competitive disadvantage to other diamond centres, which are keeping a jealous watch on Antwerp's number one position in the trade," said Caroline De Wolf, spokeswoman for the centre.

Antwerp has been a diamond-trading hub since the 15th century, gaining prominence over Amsterdam in the 19th, when the first exchange was established.

It has been traditionally dominated by Jewish traders and craftsmen, but many Indians also now deal gems in the city.

The port city has become the centre of the $60 billion-a-year global diamond industry, handling 80 percent of rough diamonds and half of all polished diamonds, but faces growing competition from the likes of Dubai and New York.

The heart of Antwerp's diamond centre is an S-shaped pedestrian zone guarded by police in which diamond traders freely walk with gems in their suitcases, but outside their semi-fortress the threat of robbery remains.

AIRPORT IS WEAK LINK

Aviation is considered a more secure form of transport than the alternatives, but Monday's heist was by no means the first at Brussels airport.

In 2005 there was a diamond robbery at a Fedex freight depot, in 2000 from a Lufthansa flight, 1999 from a London-bound jet by people dressed in airline uniforms and in 1995 from a Swissair jet.

In 2003, thieves cleared vaults at the Antwerp Diamond Centre during a weekend, with diamonds, gold and jewellery worth over $100 million taken. The thieves got past infrared heat detectors and a lock with millions of possible combinations.

De Wolf said security measures in Antwerp itself had been improved a lot since then.

"The problem here is that the issue is with the airport," she said.

Monday's heist was relatively simple. The eight-member gang cut through the airport fence and drove to the airport gate, with flashing lights on their vehicles, where unarmed staff were loading the plane.

Brussels airport declined to comment.

Christiaan Van der Veken, who has an upmarket jewellery store on the edge of Antwerp's protected zone, said he found it hard to accept that robbers had been able to cut through the fence unnoticed.

"We are important customers of (the airport). There are $50-$200 million of diamonds passing through the airport on a daily basis," he said, although he added that a very occasional robbery might be considered a "normal" risk of the business.

Scott Andrew Selby, a Los Angeles-based co-author of "Flawless", a book about the 2003 robbery, said the robbers would only need to find a buyer who did not ask a lot of questions.

"You sell to one guy, within a couple of days they will have changed hands several times. Unless the police find these diamonds very quickly, the odds of them ever finding them are very, very small," he said. (Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Andrew Roche)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130220/belgium-fears-threat-diamond-supremacy-after-massive-heist