Fri, May 10, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Police nab 33 in US$50 million diamond heist

AFP, BRUSSELS

Police in Belgium, France and Switzerland have arrested 33 people and recovered “a large quantity” of diamonds and cash in a joint probe into a spectacular US$50 million diamond heist at Brussels airport.

The Belgian prosecutor’s office on Wednesday said a suspected member of the eight-man gang that staged the brazen robbery three months ago had been picked up in France on Tuesday, as Swiss police made eight arrests and seized some of the missing diamonds.

“The probe led to a big police operation yesterday,” spokesman Jean-Marc Meilleur told a news conference.

In early-morning raids, mainly in the Brussels area involving about 200 officers on Wednesday, police made 24 arrests and “recovered big amounts of cash” and luxury cars, Meilleur said.

The Feb. 18 robbery at Zaventem Airport was at the time described as “one of the biggest” ever by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), the global dealers’ syndicate based in the Belgian port city.

A heavily armed and hooded gang pulled up in a car on a runway at around 8pm where a Brinks’ armored vehicle had just unloaded Antwerp diamonds into a Swiss passenger aircraft about to take off for Zurich.

In an operation that lasted barely 10 minutes and without a shot fired, the men forced open the hold of the plane and removed about 120 boxes of diamonds.

The gang, posing as police officers, had cut through the airport’s perimeter fence and made off with the haul of US$50 million in gems through the same breach.

Meilleur refused to say whether police suspected the gang had worked with insiders at the airport.

The suspect detained in France, 43-year-old Marc Bertolbi, has a lengthy criminal record and Belgium has asked for his extradition, he said.

Bertolbi’s lawyer Olivier Rondu later said he “formally denies any role in the heist and impatiently awaits his extradition to Belgium to be heard on the accusations.”

Bertolbi owns property in Metz, on the French Riviera and in Casablanca, Morocco.

In Morocco he runs a restaurant and a luxury car company.

In his car police found 60,000 euros (US$79,000) in cash whose origin is so far unknown.

In Geneva, a statement from the Swiss prosecutor’s office said police there had seized “a large quantity of diamonds from the spectacular armed robbery in Brussels.”

The statement went on to say “a big haul was seized, of 100,000 Swiss francs [US$107,000] in cash and a large quantity of diamonds, the value of which is currently being estimated.”

A businessman and a Geneva lawyer among the eight people being held were facing charges of dealing in stolen goods and obstructing the course of justice, the Swiss statement said.

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