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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014

Belgian diamond theft might be largest in history

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Thieves emptied more than 100 vaults at a diamond trading center in what officials said might be the largest theft ever in Antwerp, the gem trading capital of the world.

Authorities were still trying Tuesday to determine the amount of the loss from the cellar of a building that houses dozens of gem trading companies in a city that has been a center of the trade in precious stones since the 16th century.

The thieves bypassed heavy security to steal the diamonds from 123 of 160 vaults in the cellar of the Antwerp Diamond Center over the weekend. The loss was disclosed Monday.

Previously, the largest theft on record in Antwerp occurred in 1994, when thieves cleaned out five vaults in the Diamond Center, for a loss of $4.55 million. Two Israelis and another man from Brazil were convicted in that theft but their case is on appeal.

The total in the weekend burglary was likely to be much larger, said Youri Steverlynck, a spokesman for the High Diamond Council, which regulates the gem trade.

"We are certainly talking about many millions," Steverlynck said.

The Diamond Center, in the heart of Antwerp's historic gem district, has extremely heavy security including surveillance cameras and round-the-clock guards for the vaults. There was no sign of forced entry in the weekend break-in so authorities suspect an inside job.

"Interrogations of people working at the center are ongoing," said Leen Nuyts, a magistrate from the city prosecutor's office.

The thieves dropped some precious stones, suggesting they were in a rush, but Nuyts said it still would have taken hours to empty so many vaults.

More than half of world diamond production, either rough or polished, passes through Antwerp and local officials feared the theft would hurt the city's image as a trading center.

"It will hurt Antwerp's image," Steverlynck said. "Security has always been our strong point."


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