French gang may have used drones before helicopter prison break

The heavily armed commando gang that helped a notorious gangster escape from a French prison by helicopter on Sunday may have used drones to gather information for the daring breakout.

Their hijacked helicopter landed in the one prison courtyard not fitted with anti-aircraft netting, suggesting a well-planned operation and several reconnaissance missions, French authorities said.

The French justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, said a number of drones were spotted flying over the jail at Réau, south-east of Paris, in recent months. She said investigators were looking at possible links to Sunday’s breakout.

“Someone spotted this possible way out, and it could have been done using drones,” Belloubet said.

Rédoine Faïd and his gang have been on the run since Sunday. It is the second time Faïd, a serial robber of banks and armoured vehicles and a fan of Hollywood mafia heroes, has escaped jail in five years.

Faïd was facing 25 years in prison for a series of crimes, including a attempted robbery in 2010 that led to a high-speed car chase and shootout with police in which officer Aurélie Fouquet, 26, was killed.

“Rédouine Faïd is someone who has freedom in his DNA. He also has law-breaking in his DNA,” Laurent-Franck Liénard, the Fouquet family lawyer, told RTL radio on Monday.

A car abandoned by Faïd at a shopping mall car park.
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A car abandoned by Faïd at a shopping mall car park. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
Faïd, 46, was talking to his brother Brahim in the prison’s visiting area when, using smoke bombs to create a distraction, three masked and hooded commandos, reportedly armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing “police” armbands, cut through a security door using an angle grinder and snatched him.

The operation lasted less than 10 minutes.

After bundling Faïd into the helicopter, the gang forced the pilot to fly to Gonnesse near near Charles-de-Gaulle-Roissy airport north of Paris, 37 miles (60km) away, where a fourth commando was waiting with a black Renault Mégane getaway car. The pilot was released unharmed and the helicopter was discovered burned out.

Faïd is believed to have escaped along the A1 motorway going north from the French capital before stopping to swap the Mégane for a white van.

It emerged on Monday that Faïd was due to be transferred to another prison in Dijon in September.

A prison official at Réau, where he was being held, had written to his superiors to suggest the move be brought forward only a week before the break-out.

In a letter dated June 22, a prison guard with 31 years experience in the service, warned of the “serious danger” posed by Faïd and insisted he should be moved sooner

“Given my modest experience (I will soon have served 31 years in this institution) I have rarely insisted on a transfer concerning a prisoner,” he wrote.

The guard added that if the authorities insisted on waiting until September to transfer Faïd “we are taking extremely serious risks with public order, without taking into account the risk of very serious - perhaps irreversible - violence against our staff.”

About 2,900 French security forces, national and local police and gendarmes, are on high alert searching for the escaped man and his cohorts. Security has been stepped up at the Belgian border.

“All forces have been mobilised to locate the fugitive … coordinated control and interception devices have been put in place taking into account the dangerous nature of the fugitive and his possible accomplices,” the interior ministry said on Monday.

The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, told RTL radio: “The police forces are fully mobilised to find this person. We know he is dangerous; we know he is determined.”

Police are questioning Faïd’s brother.

Prison union leaders told Le Monde they had already complained about the lack of netting over the main courtyard but accused the prison authorities of taking no notice.

Belloubet added that the prisoners never used the main courtyard “except when they leave”. “Perhaps we need to re-examine this situation,” she said.

Last year, Faïd was given a 10-year prison sentence after breaking out of Sequedin jail near Lille in 2013 with four accomplices. In that breakout, four guards were taken hostage and five prison security doors blown off their hinges with plastic explosives before the thief was picked up in a car and driven off. He was arrested in a hotel six weeks later.

Faïd’s criminal career began in 1995 when he robbed a bank in his hometown of Creil, north of Paris, after taking the bank manager’s family hostage. In the following two years he carried out a series of robberies and was jailed for 18 years.

In 2010, Faïd claimed to be a reformed character having been given a conditional release from jail and published a book, called Thief: the Organised Crime Cities, and embarked on a book tour, including appearances on French television.

A year later he was back in police custody accused of being the mastermind behind an attempted robbery in which Fouquet was gunned down.

The investigative journalist Frédéric Ploquin, who met Faïd several times while researching a book on the French underworld, said the dramatic escape was “very much his style”.

He said the fugitive was a fan of Robert De Niro, Michael Mann and Steve McQueen.

“He always tried to make real all the things he learned in the movies,” Ploquin told BFM TV.



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