ARMED robbers stole diamonds worth an estimated €37m during a daring raid in Belgium yesterday, it has emerged.
The raid, which is thought to have involved up to eight men, took place on the tarmac at Brussels international airport. The diamonds were taken from the hold of a Switzerland-bound plane.
The men are currently being hunted by police.
Brussels prosecutor's spokeswoman Anja Bijnens said the armed and masked men crashed through the airport's perimeter fence with two cars yesterday.
Within minutes they made their way to the plane, took the cache of precious stones and drove off into the darkness. Police found a burned-out van close to the airport later last night but said they were still looking for clues.
According to local media the thieves are reported to have broken through a fence at Brussel's main airport with two vehicles at around 7:47pm local time.
In a statement the airport said: "The men in the car rode to a Swiss airplane where they stole valuable goods," it said.
"There was no shooting, and no one got injured. This lasted only a few minutes, and after that, they left the airport domain through the damaged fence."
The robbers struck as the diamonds were being loaded onto a plane bound for Zurich.
The heist was estimated at some $50m (€37m) in diamonds, said Caroline De Wolf, of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.
"What we are talking about is obviously a gigantic sum," she told the VRT broadcasting network.
Airport spokesman Jan Van Der Crujsse said the gang made a hole in the perimeter fence and drove right up to the Swiss passenger plane, which was ready to leave.
The robbers got out of the car, flashed their arms and took the loot from the hold. Without firing a shot, they then drove off through the same hole in the fence, completing the spectacular theft within minutes, he said.
Mr Van Der Crujsse could not explain how the area could be so vulnerable to theft. "We abide by the most stringent rules," he said.
The Swiss flight, operated by Helvetic Airways, was cancelled after the raid. Swiss, an affiliate of Germany's Deutsche Lufthansa, declined to comment on the heist, citing the ongoing judicial investigation.
The insurance for air transport - handled sometimes by airlines themselves or external insurance companies - is usually relatively cheap because it is considered to be the safest way of transporting small high-value items, logistics experts say.
Unlike a car or a truck, a plane cannot be attacked by robbers once it is on its way, and it is considered to be very safe before departure and after arrival because the aircraft is always within the confines of an airport - which are normally highly secured.