A notorious French criminal serving 25 years for murder has staged a daring escape from a prison south of Paris using a helicopter.
A huge manhunt has begun for Redoine Faid around the French capital after he broke out of Reau Prison.
Officials said drones seen buzzing above the prison months ago may have been on a reconnaissance mission ahead of the escape.
France’s justice minister said several drones were spotted a few months ago flying over the prison and speculated that they were linked to Sunday’s escape by Faid.
Heavily armed men landed a helicopter in a courtyard, used a grinding machine to open the door of the visiting room where Faid was seeing his brother, and took the prisoner to freedom.
Faid, 46, is an avid fan of caper films, the author of a confessional book about his life of crime, and a serial robber of banks and armoured trucks.
This is the second time he had escaped from a French prison, after he used explosives to blast his way out of jail on a previous occasion before recapture.
France’s justice ministry said 46-year-old Faid’s escape only took “a few minutes” and no-one was injured or taken hostage.
It said “an armed commando landed in a helicopter in the courtyard as the prisoner was in the visiting room” of the facility.
A union representative at Reau Prison, Martial Delabroye, told BFM television that “two men dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and police armbands” entered in the prison to look for Faid.
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The helicopter was later found burned out in the town of Garges-les-Gonesse, in the northern suburbs of Paris. Faid is believed to have left by car along with his accomplices.
French police are also investigating the possibility that Faid may now be disguised as an Orthodox Jew and on his way to Israel.
He speaks Hebrew and has expressed a desire in the past to settle in Israel. In his autobiography, published in 2010, he wrote how disguising himself as an “ultra-Orthodox Jew” was one way to evade police capture.
A police source in Paris told the Evening Standard: “Faid won’t be able to stay on the run in Europe, but Israel may prove a lot easier.
“He has very strong links with Israeli groups.”
In 2013, Faid blasted his way out of prison with explosives concealed in tissue packs. He was arrested at a hotel six weeks later.
Faid was sentenced to 25 years in the 2010 death of a young policewoman killed during a botched robbery.
In the 1990s, Faid led a criminal gang involved in armed robbery of banks and armoured vans transporting money. He was arrested in 1998 after three years on the run in Switzerland and Israel, according to the French media.
Faid was freed in 2009 after serving 10 years in prison. At the time he swore that he had turned his life around, writing a confessional book about his life of crime and going on an extensive media tour in 2010.
Still, he was the suspected mastermind of an attempted armed robbery in 2010 that led to a high-speed chase and a shootout with police in which 26-year-old policewoman Aurelie Fouquet was killed. He was arrested in 2011.
Faid was later convicted of the murder of the policewoman along with two accomplices.