BRUSSELS - Police are looking for eight men who drove onto the tarmac of Brussels international airport and stole millions of dollars worth of diamonds from the hold of a Swiss-bound plane.
Brussels prosecutor's spokeswoman Anja Bijnens said Tuesday the armed and masked men crashed through the security perimeter fence around the airport with two cars.
Within minutes they made their way to the plane, took the cache of stones and drove off into the darkness.
The robbers, who wore outfits resembling dark police clothing, got away with 120 parcels, mostly containing diamonds but some also holding precious metals.
Brussels Airport spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse tells Bloomberg News the diamond thieves apparently were efficient, needing just three minutes at the plane in an operation that took only 11 minutes total.
"It was very well organized, very swift, efficient and well planned," Van der Cruysse tells Bloomberg News in a telephone interview.
Sources say the gems could be worth between $50 million and $350 million dollars.
Police found a burnt-out van close to the airport later Monday night but said it was still looking for clues.
Here is a list of some previous high-profile jewel heists.
2005: Thieves threaten the guards and hijack an armored car from Dutch carrier KLM's cargo ramp at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, making off with millions in diamonds and jewelry. Subsequent media reports put the value of the loot at up to $100 million. "It was a secured area of the airport, so it's a big question how those people could get there," an airline spokesman said at the time.
2003: Robbers tape over security cameras, disable the alarm system and break into the high-security underground vaults of the Diamond Center in Antwerp, the world capital of diamond-cutting, getting away with an estimated $100 million in goods. After prying open 123 of the 160 vaults, the thieves stood ankle-deep in a pile of diamonds, gold, jewelry, stocks, bonds, cash and lockboxes, police said. The bounty was so abundant they had to leave a lot behind.
2008: While Christmas shoppers stroll outside the posh Harry Winston jewelry shop near Paris' famed Champs-Elysees, armed thieves - some dressed as women and wearing wigs - enter the store and steal gems and jeweled watches worth up to $85 million, according to French police.
2009: Two elegantly dressed men rob the Graff Diamond Store in London's posh Mayfair district and carry away necklaces, watches, rings and bracelets worth more than 40 million ($62 million at today's exchange rate), according to Scotland Yard.
1994: Machine-gun-toting thieves steal $45 million in gems from the Carlton Hotel in Cannes on the French Riviera.
2004: Twelve pieces of jewelry worth about $31.5 million, including the 125-carat "Comtesse de Vendome" diamond necklace, are stolen from a store in Tokyo's Ginza district.
2007: 120,000 karats in diamonds, worth $28 million, are stolen from safe-deposit boxes in an ABN Amro bank in Antwerp, Belgium, according to police.
2008: Masked thieves drill a tunnel into jeweler Damiani's showroom in Milan, Italy, making off with gold, diamonds and rubies worth an estimated $20 million. The company did not confirm the value of the stolen items.
2002: Thieves break into a Dutch science museum, where an exhibition promised to show visitors how to tell real diamonds from fakes, and made off with necklaces, tiaras and precious gems on loan from other museums estimated to be worth $12 million.
1993: Robbers manage to open only five of the underground vaults at the Antwerp Diamond Center, yielding loot estimated at $4.55 million.
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