A GANG of about 15 gunmen ambushed two vans believed to be carrying around £7 million worth of jewels early yesterday morning on a French highway, forcing out the drivers and speeding off into the countryside, police said.
It was the latest in a string of big jewel heists in France.
French gendarmes and other authorities were combing the forests and towns in the region southeast of Paris for the attackers.
The jewellery heist occurred around midnight at the Avallon tollbooth on the A6 motorway connecting Paris and Lyon, some 200 km southeast of Paris.
No one was injured in the attack and the drivers of the two vans involved were left at the scene unharmed, a police official said.
The perpetrators escaped in four cars and the two vans, which police later found burned and abandoned near the site of the attack, the official said.
Forensic investigators examined the area around the charred vans amid vineyards in the town of Quenne.
Police helicopters and other units were scrambled to try to find the gang, and their vehicles, but by dawn there was no sign of them.
The jewels remain missing and it was unclear where the attackers were heading.
After hours of searches failed to locate them, another police official said authorities were concentrating efforts on the investigation into the attack, which was handed to the French police agency overseeing organised crime.
According to French police, there were five attacks on armoured vehicles in the country in 2013, and six in 2012.
A spokesman said: “These attacks have resulted in failure due to increased professionalism of the security and quality of exchanges between French and foreign services within the framework of international cooperation.” Prosecutors in Auxerre have launched a preliminary enquiry, and have valued the stolen loads at “around €9 million”.
They said much of the raid would have been caught on CCTV.
No suspects have been named in the theft, although the case was reminiscent of heists by the “Pink Panther” gang of jewel thieves.
The Pink Panther network has been credited with a series of thefts that Interpol says have netted more than €330 million since 1999. The gang are believed have carried out heists all over France over the past two decades, often using the country’s motorway system to escape.
The Pink Panthers earned their name in 1993 after stealing a £500,000 diamond from a jewellers in London’s Mayfair and hiding it in a jar of face cream.
It was a tactic copied from the 1963 Pink Panther film, starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.
France has seen repeated jewellery thefts of late. In November, two gunmen robbed a Cartier jewellery boutique in a tourist-filled Paris neighbourhood, fled a police chase across the Seine River, took a hostage – and then surrendered.
In December 2008, armed assailants wearing women’s wigs made off from a Harry Winston boutique in Paris with diamond rings and other jewellery believed to be worth €102m.
Last month, eight people were convicted in connection with the heist.
In 2013, the resort of Cannes was hit by two audacious thefts. The first occurred when a gunman walked into a jewellery show at the Carlton Hotel and made off with €128m worth of diamonds and other jewels.
French authorities said it was one of Europe’s biggest jewellery heists in recent years.
Just days after the incident, armed men robbed a luxury watch store in Cannes, threatening staff with a grenade and a gun before escaping with 40 watches.