- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

ANTWERP, Belgium, Feb. 25 (UPI) — Belgian police have arrested four suspects in connection with last week's multimillion-dollar diamond robbery in Antwerp, the city's public prosecutor confirmed Tuesday.

The alleged thieves, believed to be three Italians and one Dutch woman, will appear in court Thursday charged with masterminding the diamond capital's biggest-ever jewel heist. The news will bring some relief to Antwerp's tight-knit community of diamond cutters, buyers and sellers, who have dominated the global trade in the precious stones since the end of the 19th century.

More than 80 percent of the world's diamonds pass through the prosperous Belgian port, bringing in over $26 billion a year and sustaining almost 30,000 jobs in the city.

Antwerp advertises itself as "a diamond's best friend" and boasts a battery of hi-tech security hardware aimed at deterring would-be-crooks. But over the weekend of Feb. 14-16, a group of thieves pulled off a burglary of such stunning simplicity that it has left diamond traders stunned and police scratching their heads in disbelief.

Despite the 24/7 police presence, omnipresent security cameras, secret entry codes and roadblocks, the robbers walked coolly into the Antwerp Diamond Center, emptied the contents of two-thirds of the building's 160 maximum-security vaults and walked out again without an alarm being raised or a shot being fired.

"The diamond district is the best protected street in Belgium," said Youri Steverlynck of the Antwerp Diamond High Council, a body representing the city's gem traders. "It is incredible that despite all the security measures, this thing could have happened."

The value of the stolen diamonds reminds unknown, but is likely to run to tens of millions of dollars. In 1994, the largest previous theft in Antwerp's diamond quarter, thieves escaped with $4.55 million worth of jewels from just five vaults.

"It's a tragedy for everyone concerned," Steverlynck told United Press International. "Especially for the individuals and small traders who have lost all their capital in one go, it's a very hard knock to take."

In a community that prides itself on trust and safe housekeeping, the spectacular heist has left dealers shocked and angry.

"We're not safe anymore," said one diamond seller on Rijfstraat, a heavily guarded street a block from the city's main train station.

Another told UPI: "There is no security here. Even supermarkets and petrol stations are better protected."

The ease with which the thieves walked away with their multimillion-dollar bounty has raised suspicions that the heist was an inside job. The discovery that the security camera video tapes of the crime have also gone missing is also seen as further proof that the felons benefited from protection.

Steverlynck admitted the heist was "bad for the reputation" of Antwerp, but said it had to put it in the context of an industry that does $75 million of business a day in the historic Flemish city.

"If you are the largest diamond center in the world, it is logical that one day you will be hit by a robbery. It is a hit you have to take, but you just have to go on."


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