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Police detain 31 people in $50m Belgium diamond heist

Large number of diamonds found

Workers placed concrete barriers to block access to a security fence next to the tarmac at Brussels International Airport after the Feb. 18 diamond robbery.

Yves Logghe/Associated Press/file

Workers placed concrete barriers to block access to a security fence next to the tarmac at Brussels International Airport after the Feb. 18 diamond robbery.

BRUSSELS — Unlike the brilliant thieves in ‘‘Ocean’s Eleven,’’ it appears that those behind the clockwork-precision, $50 million diamond heist at Brussels Airport may not get a Hollywood ending.

After three months of virtual silence on the matter, authorities struck this week, detaining at least 31 people in a three-nation sweep and recovering so many diamonds from the loot Antwerp traders lost that they are still figuring out the exact value.

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Officials said that among the people held in Belgium, France, and Switzerland on Tuesday and Wednesday are some with violent criminal pasts; the one person held in France is believed to have been one of the robbers at the airport. The evidence seized includes large sums of cash, precious stones, and luxury cars.

‘‘It was a total surprise for us,’’ said Caroline De Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond
Center, whose traders lost millions in the Feb. 18 heist. ‘‘But we were delighted when we heard.’’

Six to eight people were detained in Geneva, and 24 in and around Brussels. It was unclear exactly what roles each suspect may have played.

Some 250 policemen were involved in the dawn raid in the Belgian capital, and many of the two dozen suspects were being interrogated late Wednesday. It could take at least another day before it’s clear how many will be placed under arrest, said Anja Bijnens, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

Perhaps the most important discovery was in Geneva of stones that could immediately be linked to the cache spirited away from the airport.

That theft ranks among the biggest diamond heists of recent times, and many liken it to the plot of the 2001 Vegas heist movie, ‘‘Ocean’s Eleven,’’ which stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, for its clinically clean execution.

‘‘In Switzerland, we have found diamonds that we can already say are coming from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found. And the investigation is still ongoing,’’ said Jean-Marc Meilleur, a spokesman for the Brussels prosecutor’s office. He said police had also found luxury cars.

Meilleur was scant on detail, yielding no clues as to how police got on the trail of the suspects.

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