France Seeks Gangster, and Answers, after Helicopter Jailbreak

W300

The French government admitted possible security failings on Monday after a notorious gangster used a helicopter to stage the second brazen jailbreak of a crime career inspired by films such as "Scarface".

The latest dramatic escape by Redoine Faid, who had multiple convictions for armed robbery, has left French authorities red-faced, and a manhunt involving some 2,900 officers has been launched to track him down.

The 46-year-old movie buff was sprung from a prison near Paris by two accomplices who used smoke bombs and angle grinders to break through doors and whisk him to a waiting helicopter.

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told Europe 1 radio that she had sent a team of inspectors to the prison "to see whether the security measures were defective so that we can rectify them."

She suggested that Faid had been left in the same prison for too long, giving the serial fugitive, who had professed to have reformed, time to plot his escape.

"We must be careful not to leave the same people in the same places for too long when we're dealing with this type of individual," she said.

The two accomplices hijacked the helicopter on Sunday by posing as aspiring students at a flight school, ordering a terrified instructor to pick up a third accomplice before continuing on to the prison.

On arrival at the high-security facility in Reau the pilot headed toward the courtyard -- the only part of the prison not fitted with anti-helicopter nets.

Two black-clad men armed with assault rifles then alighted and set off smoke bombs before breaking into the visiting room, where Faid was talking to his brother.

The wardens, who were unarmed, fled and raised the alarm. But within 10 minutes Faid was gone, with his fellow inmates reportedly cheering as the helicopter lifted off.

Belloubet said Sunday that the gang probably used drones to stake out the seven-year-old prison, which was built on a site surrounded by fields to give a clear view in every direction -- specifically to prevent breakouts.

The helicopter was found later in a northeastern suburb of Paris about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the prison, along with the pilot, who had been beaten and was taken to hospital in a state of shock.

The men then continued their getaway by car, changing vehicles along the way from a hatchback found burnt out in a shopping mall carpark to a white van.

Investigators are looking into whether Faid, who had been at the Reau prison since November, had inside help.

Journalist Jerome Pierrat, who co-wrote a book with Faid about his life, told the Parisien newspaper he was a "charmer" who was popular with his guards and had even lunched with prison officials after a previous stint behind bars.

- Cult following -

Born into a family of 11 brothers in the gritty Paris suburb of Creil, Faid dabbled in crime from an early age, stealing a supermarket trolley filled with sweets at the age of six.

By the age of 12 he had found what he called his "vocation": he would become a robber.

After starting out as a small-time drug trafficker the smooth talker, who described his rise from petty criminal to crime boss in two books, specialized in cash-in-transit heists.

"He liked adrenalin and wanted to be like the big guys," a police officer said.

Along the way, police sources said, Faid picked up some tricks from former soldiers in Israel, where he hid out from the law on one occasion and said he dreamed of living.

Faid also claimed to have learned from Hollywood heist movies, writing that he had watched the 1995 film "Heat" starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro dozens of times to make notes.

His latest escape comes five years after he blasted his way out of a prison in northern France, using dynamite to blow up five doors.

Faid briefly took four guards hostage with a pistol before escaping in a getaway car but was recaptured six weeks later at a hotel on the outskirts of Paris.

In 2017 he was sentenced to 10 years over the escape, which earned him a cult following in the tough suburbs where he grew up, and 18 years for an attack on an armored car in 2011.

But his stiffest sentence came this year, when he was sentenced to 25 years over a botched 2010 robbery in which policewoman Aurelie Fouquet was killed.

Arguing he was "not a cop killer", Faid had complained that the sentence was unfair.