German police carried out a series of raids across Berlin on Tuesday and arrested three people suspected of being involved in a spectacular jewel heist at a museum housing one of Europe's greatest collections of treasures.
Thieves got away with a large diamond brooch, a diamond epaulette and other treasures from the Saxony city’s Green Vault Museum in November 2019.
The searches on Tuesday were carried out by more than 1,600 police, with investigators raiding 18 properties, including 10 apartments, as well as garages and vehicles, police and prosecutors said in a statement.
"The measures today are focused on the search for the stolen art treasures and possible evidence, such as data storage media, clothing and tools," they said.
In what local media have described as the biggest art heist in modern history, the robbers had launched their brazen raid on Green Vault museum in Dresden's Royal Palace.
The Green Vault is one of the world’s oldest museums. It was established in 1723 and contains the treasury of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, comprising around 4,000 objects of gold, precious stones and other materials.
The collection was brought together in the 18th century by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and later the King of Poland, who commissioned ever more brilliant jewellery as part of his rivalry with France's King Louis XIV.
One of its best known treasures - the 41-carat Dresden "Green Diamond" - was away on loan at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the break-in.
The treasures of the Green Vault survived Allied bombing raids in World War Two, only to be carted off as war booty by the Soviet Union. They were returned to Dresden, the historic capital of the state of Saxony, in 1958.
Having initiated a partial power cut and broken in through a window, the robbers snatched priceless 18th-century jewellery from the collection of August the Strong.
Items stolen included a sword whose hilt is encrusted with nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, and a shoulder piece which contains the famous 49-carat Dresden white diamond.
The stolen jewels were worth up to €1 billion ($1.19 billion), Bild newspaper reported at the time, without giving a source.
Dramatic CCTV footage released at that time showed one of the robbers breaking into a display case with an axe. Officers were on the scene five minutes after the alarm sounded, but the thieves escaped.
Police hunting for the suspects had launched several appeals, offering up to half a million euros as a reward for information leading to their arrests.
Police did not identify the three arrested, but said they are German citizens.
All three are accused of "serious gang robbery and two counts of arson," said Dresden prosecutors.
In March, prosecutors and police said they had determined that an Audi S6 used in the theft and later set alight in a Dresden garage was sold to an unidentified buyer in August.
They said they believe a young man who picked up the car from the seller in Magdeburg, another eastern German city, was connected to the break-in and released a sketch of a slim dark-haired man believed to be about 25 years old.
The car may have been repainted before the break-in, authorities said at the time, bolstering suspicions that the theft was planned well in advance.
Analyses by investigators, based in part on video footage, led them to conclude that at least seven people were involved.
Germany has been hit by several high-profile heists, with banks and museums frequent targets.
A Berlin court sentenced three men to multi-year jail sentences in February for the theft of a 100-kilogram (220-lb) gold coin from one of the German capital's museums.
Police have found no trace of the Canadian coin since the late-night heist in March 2017 from the Bode Museum, located close to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Berlin apartment.
The "Big Maple Leaf", one of five minted in 2007, is considered the world's second-largest gold coin after the one-tonne Australian Kangaroo issued in 2012.
Robbers also hit a German customs office early November, making off with €6.5 million in cash.
Police have offered €100,000 in reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of the suspects.