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.
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
Gunmen took the prisoner from the visitors’ room before fleeing by air, according to security sources cited by Reuters.
French outlet BFMTV reports that the men, hooded and dressed in black, burst into the room at around 11:20 local time (09:20 GMT) on Sunday, demanding Faid’s release.
They had earlier taken a helicopter instructor hostage while he was waiting for a student, and ordered him to go to the prison. Reports suggest the pilot has been released and is safe – if shocked.
Faid got out of the helicopter and into a black Renault which was seen heading for the A1 motorway, BFMTV reports.
Early on Sunday afternoon, police sources told news channel France 3 that he had switched vehicles and was now in a white van.
A police search is now under way across the whole Paris region. “Everything is being done to locate the fugitive,” an interior ministry official said.
Gangster who loves 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.
Faid is nicknamed “L’Écrivain” – “the writer” – by French police.
In 2001, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for armed robbery
In April this year, he was convicted on appeal of masterminding a 2010 robbery in which a young policewoman, Aurélie Fouquet, was killed.
He had been returned to prison in 2011 for breaching parole conditions relating to earlier convictions.
In 2013, he escaped from the northern French prison of Sequedin, outside Lille, by taking four guards hostage, but was recaptured six weeks later.
Last year, he was given 10 years in prison for the 2013 prison break.
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.
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.