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News Wrap: Armed Robbers Make Off With Haul of Diamonds in Belgium

February 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In other news Tuesday, armed robbers made a successful diamond heist in an elaborate overnight operation in Belgium. Also, Gen. George Allen, the former top commander in Afghanistan, announced he will retire.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Armed robbers made off with a huge haul of diamonds in a daring heist overnight in Belgium. No shots were fired during the raid and no one was hurt. But authorities are releasing few details.

I spoke earlier with Robert-Jan Bartunek of Thomson Reuters in Brussels via Google Hangout.

ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK, Thomson Reuters: What we do know is that yesterday evening here, local time, around 7:45, eight armed robbers armed with machine guns drove on to the tarmac at Brussels Airport and stole $50 million worth of diamonds from an airplane that was about to start.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This almost seemed like a Hollywood script. How long did this heist take?

ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK: This only took three minutes, so it must have been a very professional hit. There’s no doubt about that. And prosecutors also said that they had to be very well prepared to do that.

They basically opened a fence. They cut through the fence. They drove onto the tarmac where the diamonds were about to be loaded on to the plane and they at gunpoint demanded those diamonds and they drove off again not to be seen until now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do the authorities have any leads?

ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK: Not at the moment. No, prosecutors are not giving any details on that, no.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Help put this in perspective. How many millions of dollars worth of diamonds are going out of this airport?

ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK: Through the city of Antwerp, which is the main diamond hub here in Belgium, we have about eight in every 10 uncut diamonds and five in every 10 cut and polished diamonds in the world go through that hub, so there’s a market worth billions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert-Jan Bartunek of Thomson Reuters in Brussels, thanks so much.

ROBERT-JAN BARTUNEK: Thanks for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The civilian death toll in Afghanistan has dropped for the first time in six years. A new report today from the United Nations said more than 2,700 civilians died last year. That was down from more than 3,100 the previous year. Still, violence claimed the lives of more women and girls, up 20 percent from 2011. The new data came a day after President Hamid Karzai banned Afghan troops from calling in airstrikes in residential areas.

The former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is going to retire, instead of becoming the overall NATO commander in Europe. President Obama announced today that Marine Gen. John Allen will end his military career. Allen’s nomination for the NATO post was put on hold last fall, amid questions about e-mail exchanges with a woman in Florida. The general was cleared of all wrongdoing, but he said today he needs to focus on his wife’s health problems.

The president stepped up his attack on Republicans today in the face of a looming deficit deadline. The so-called sequester, $85 billion dollars in automatic spending cuts, is set to take effect less than two weeks from now, on March 1st. The president charged Republicans’ unwillingness to raise taxes is preventing a deal, and he said, hundreds of thousands of public employees could be out of work if the sequester takes place.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs. The unemployment rate might tick up again. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders and economists, they have already said that these cuts known here in Washington as sequestration are a bad idea. They’re not good for our economy, that they’re not how we should run our government.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Republicans have said they already raised taxes on the wealthy at the start of the year, so the focus now must be on spending cuts. In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner said, the revenue debate is now closed.

A federal judge in New Orleans has approved a civil settlement for the company that owned the oil rig in the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. Transocean agreed to pay $1 billion dollars in civil penalties. It had already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and will pay an additional $400 million dollars in criminal penalties. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the Gulf Coast in April 2010. The blast killed 11 workers and triggered the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.

Wall Street moved higher after taking Monday off. The Dow Jones industrial average gained nearly 54 points to close at 14,035. The Nasdaq rose 21 points to close at 3213.

Those are some of the day’s major stories — now back to Gwen.