- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2000

LONDON Thieves driving a bulldozer and lobbing smoke bombs crashed into the Millennium Dome yesterday, intent on snatching $500 million worth of diamonds, in what would have been the world's largest robbery.

But the diamonds were already gone from the tented exhibition arena, and Scotland Yard was waiting yesterday morning. Officers disguised as cleaners overpowered the robbers, and a dozen men were arrested without a shot fired.

Tipped off by police, dome officials replaced the gems with crystal fakes including the spectacular 203-carat De Beers Millennium Star. The pear-shaped diamond is arguably the most perfect large diamond in the world and the third-largest ever discovered, said Kate Evan-Jones, a spokeswoman for the South African company.

"If this had been carried out in accordance with their wishes, this would have been the largest robbery in the world," said Detective Superintendent Jon Shatford, who led the operation involving more than 100 officers. "It was an extremely audacious operation."

Police warned dome officials about the attempt five weeks ago, and expected the attack anytime in a three-week window.

Four men were arrested who trapped themselves in the vault that usually houses the diamonds. Police picked up another near a speedboat on the river and a sixth man on the opposite shore. Six others were apprehended later in southeastern England.

"I heard a terrible crashing noise, as if there was an accident," said Ozcan Ocak, a worker at the dome. "When I went out to look, I saw a bulldozer outside going through the Money Zone."

Dome operators, the New Millennium Experience Co., said the diamonds are displayed in an exhibition area of the East London facility called the "Money Zone" and are very closely guarded. The Millennium Star is displayed in a reinforced glass cylinder and the area has alarms and security cameras.

The collection also features 11 large diamonds of a distinctive vivid blue.

Detective Shatford said the would-be robbers, apparently disguised as workmen, crashed through a perimeter fence and drove the bulldozer past security guards around 9:30 a.m., shortly after the attraction opened for the day. As they entered the building, they donned gas masks before unleashing smoke bombs, but none of the estimated 100 visitors in the tent was nearby.

Disguised police were positioned around the inside of the dome, and "as the robbers went into the vaults, they effectively imprisoned themselves and were ordered to come out at gunpoint by the officers," Detective Shatford said. The intruders were captured as they bashed at the display cases with hammers and sledgehammers.

The Guinness Book of Records says the world's largest gem theft was carried out in August 1994 by three men who stole items valued at $43 million from a jewelry shop in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France.

The world's biggest bank robbery was executed by guerrillas who blasted the vaults of the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut in 1976, taking valuables worth $31.4 million, according to the Guinness Book.

John O'Keefe, with the London advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, said the caper could attract more visitors to the struggling and much-derided dome.

"This is the kind of publicity money can't buy," he said.

Built on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, the dome 1,050 feet in diameter and 165 feet high at its center is the world's largest structure of its type.

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