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Tuesday, 7 November, 2000, 15:52 GMT
Flying Squad's finest hour
Millennium Dome
There were 64 members of the public inside the Dome
It was an audacious attempt at probably the world's biggest robbery - but it was foiled by an even more elaborate police response.

Like a scene lifted from a Hollywood blockbuster, a gang of villains converged on the Dome, lured by its most valuable exhibit - a 350m collection of diamonds including the unique Millennium Diamond.

But officers from Scotland Yard had been on their trail for months and as the villains' JCB crashed through the walls of the Money Zone, they pounced, catching their prey in the diamond vault like rats in a trap.

Armed officers had posed as cleaners, weapons hidden in bin bags, waiting for the moment to strike.

The Millennium Star diamond
Lure: The Millennium Star diamond
Outside the Dome, dozens of officers lay hidden, cutting off escape routes for the unsuspecting gang, while seconds away, police air support was poised to fly into action.

Even the diamonds themselves were fake, the real ones removed and replaced with crystal dummies.

For Detective Superintendent John Shatford, who led the Flying Squad operation, it was his finest hour, as a meticulously-planned sting ended without a shot being fired.

The intelligence led operation involved more than 100 officers from the Met's Flying Squad, Special Firearms Unit and Kent Police.

Det Supt Shatford described how officers moved with "overwhelming force" to arrest the men, the moment they made "an overt attempt" to carry out the robbery.

Summing the scale of the Yard's achievement he told reporters: "If this had been carried out in accordance with their wishes, this would have been the largest robbery in the world."

Smoke bombs

Det Supt Shatford said the raiders smashed through the walls of the Dome and into the Money Zone using a JCB vehicle.

Wearing gasmasks, they unleashed smoke bombs when they went into the building.

Four men then began to attack the De Beers diamond display using hammers, sledgehammers and nail guns. But to no avail.

John Shatford
John Shatford: 'Anxiety'

Police swooped on the men, arresting all four inside the vaults. A further two were arrested on and around the river Thames as they attempted to escape in a power boat.

And another person was arrested on the far bank of the Thames. Officers believe he was monitoring police radio frequencies during the heist.

Former flying squad member John O'Connell told the BBC the robbers were "new kids on the block".

"They are not your run-of-the mill south London robbers," he said.

"It's a major coup for the Flying Squad."

Mr O'Connell said the value of the diamonds meant the robbers were probably planning to hold them to ransom in a bid to extort money form De Beers or the company's insurers.

JCB digger
Raiders used a JCB digger

"A diamond cutter could break them up but it would be rather like asking someone to paint over the Mona Lisa," he said.

Police defended their decision to allow the would-be robbers to make their strike - after it emerged that 64 members of the public were in the Dome at the time of the dramatic incident.

Det Supt Shatford said: "This was a difficult tactical operation to plan, but we worked around the safety of the public at all times.

"The safest way to do it was to allow the would-be robbers to get inside so that they could imprison themselves inside the vaults where the diamonds were."

This allowed police to prevent the men running amok inside the Dome, he said.

There was always "anxiety" said the officer, because until the attempted robbery occurred police could never be sure of exactly how it would turn out.

But he said plans had been reviewed and re-reviewed and said he was delighted that the operation had been "a great success".

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