PARIS. A notorious gangster has escaped by helicopter from a prison in the Paris region, the French authorities say.
Redoine Faid was helped by several heavily armed men who created a diversion at the prison entrance while the helicopter landed in the courtyard.
The helicopter flew to the nearby Gonesse area, where it was found by local police.
Faid, 46, has been serving a 25-year sentence for a failed robbery during which a police officer was killed.
This is his second prison break: in 2013, he escaped after seizing four guards as human shields and blowing several doors off with dynamite.
He staged that escape less than half an hour after arriving at a prison in northern France, and spent six weeks on the run.
In 2009 Faid wrote a book about his experiences of growing up in Paris's crime-ridden suburbs and graduating into a life of law-breaking.
He claimed to have turned his back on criminality, but a year later was involved in the failed robbery for which he was serving a sentence at the prison in Réau in the Seine-et-Marne region.
Faid and his accomplices escaped from the prison courtyard - which was not protected by a net - without injuring anyone.
Armed men took the prisoner from the visitors' room, where he was talking to his brother Brahim, before fleeing by air.
French outlet BFMTV reports that the men, hooded and dressed in black, burst into the prison at around 11:20 local time (09:20 GMT) on Sunday.
They had earlier taken a helicopter instructor hostage from a small flying club in Fontenay-Trésigny, where he was waiting for a student, and ordered him to go to the prison. Reports suggest the pilot has been released and was taken to hospital in shock.
Faid initially got out of the helicopter and into a black Renault Megane which was seen heading for the A1 motorway.
That car was later found burnt out at a shopping centre car park in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris.
Early on Sunday afternoon, French media said Faid had switched getaway vehicles and was now in a white company van.
A police search is under way across the whole Paris region. "Everything is being done to locate the fugitive," an interior ministry official said.
Gangster inspired by Hollywood crime
Born in 1972, Faid grew up in a notoriously rough part of Paris.
In the 1990s, he ran a gang involved in armed robbery and extortion in the French capital. He has previously said his lifestyle was inspired by Hollywood gangster films, including the Al Pacino thriller Scarface.
He is said to be devoted to Robert De Niro movies and the stylised crime thrillers of US director Michael Mann.
He once approached Mann, who helmed the 1995 gangster film Heat, at a Paris film festival and told him: "You were my technical adviser."
Faid claimed to have watched the movie dozens of times to hone his skills as a bank robber.
French police have nicknamed the gangster "L'Écrivain" - "the writer" - in a nod to his autobiography and subsequent media tour.
One of Faid's most recent prison supervisors said he was never in conflict with guards, but that "we must always be wary".
"In the corner of his mind, he never lost the idea of escaping. Behind all his manners - he is very polite - he always hid his game," the supervisor said.
Timeline of a jailbreaker
- Faid's cycle of imprisonment and escape began with his arrest in 1998 on multiple counts of armed robbery and bank theft.
- In 2009 he was freed on parole, swearing that he was a changed man - but by 2011, he had breached his terms of release and was back behind bars.
- In 2017, Faid was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for his 2013 jailbreak from Séquedin prison, outside Lille. He was also given 18 years for masterminding a 2010 robbery in which a young policewoman, Aurélie Fouquet, was killed.
- Faid mounted a failed appeal, and in April 2018 was given a heavier sentence of 25 years for the botched robbery. He was serving that term at the time of his latest escape.
The fugitive is not the first to escape a French jail by helicopter.
In 2001, three armed robbers fled a prison in Draguignan, southern France, after an accomplice hijacked a helicopter from an airfield in nearby St Tropez.
Two years later, inmates accused of running an international drugs ring escaped a remand centre near Aix-en-Provence by similar means.