Antwerp Suffers Huge Diamond Heist

February 19, 2003

Antwerp Suffers Huge Diamond Heist

Thieves cleared out 123 of 160 vaults in the maximum-security cellars of Antwerp's Diamond Centre over the weekend of Feb. 15-16, but the robbery wasn't discovered until Feb. 17, according to CNN.

On Feb. 18, police were still trying to quantify the loss. A decade ago, when only five vaults were robbed in the cellar where cutters and dealers traditionally store their wares, the heist was estimated at US$4.55 million.

"We should not extrapolate but it is sure that the total will be much larger now," says Youri Steverlynck, a spokesman for the city's High Diamond Council. "We are certainly talking about many millions."

Apart from the magnitude of the theft, the audacity of the robbers stood out. The Diamond Centre, at the heart of Antwerp's historic gem district, has surveillance cameras everywhere and requires special passes to get in. The room containing the vaults are is even better protected, with round-the-clock guards.

Since there is no sign of a break-in, police suspect an inside job. "Interrogations of people working at the centre are ongoing," said Leen Nuyts, a magistrate from the prosecution's office. Steverlynck told CNN the diamond district is the best-protected in Belgium, but "the robbers knew very well how to avoid security cameras and alarms."

Some dealers and cutters whose vaults were still intact say documents and even some dropped gems were thrown to the floor as the robbers tried to take as many gems in as little time as possible. Nuyts said the robbers must have been in the cellar either "for hours or there must have been a great many of them."

The district is also home to Antwerp's Jewish community and has had reinforced police surveillance for several decades. In 1981, a car bomb exploded outside the old Sephardic synagogue in the heart of the diamond district, killing three people and injuring more than 100.

The weekend robbery will hurt the industry, the Diamond High Council said. "It will hurt Antwerp's image as diamond centre," Steverlynck told the Gazet van Antwerpen. "Security has always been our strong point."

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