A MEMBER of the notorious “Pink Panther” jewel thief gang has escaped from a Swiss prison after accomplices rammed a gate and overpowered guards with bursts from their AK-47s.
Milan Poparic, 34, fled with fellow inmate Adrian Albrecht, 52, from the Orbe prison in the western state of Vaud late on Thursday, according to police.
He is the third member of the Pink Panthers to escape from a Swiss prison in as many months.
Poparic, a Bosnian national, had been serving a sentence of six years and eight months for robbing a jewellery store in the Swiss city of Neuchatel in 2009. Albrecht was serving a seven-year prison sentence for various crimes including robbery, arson and money laundering.
Police said Poparic was part of the Pink Panthers network, whose members are prime suspects in a series of daring thefts.
According to Interpol, the group has targeted luxury watch and jewellery stores in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States, netting more than €330 million (£285m) since 1999.
The gang is believed to number 20 to 30 individuals, originating as a gang from Cetinje, Montenegro, but later growing into a wider Balkan collective.
The two accomplices rammed the prison gate with two vehicles, clearing the way for the escape, while the prisoners were taking part in an exercise period. They fled with the two escapees in one vehicle and set fire to the other.
Teams of police are searching for the escapees with the help of police dogs and and experts from Switzerland and France.
At a news conference yesterday, Beatrice Metraux, head of Vaud’s interior department which includes responsibility for prisons, said the guards were unarmed but were backed up by officers from the Swiss private security firm Protectas, who were equipped with “simple handguns” that were no match for the AK-47s.
She said the escapees hadn’t received any visits in recent months, other than from their lawyers.
“This is an invasion, rather than an escape, orchestrated by a heavily-armed, organised gang,” she said, adding that the staff were shocked and one person was receiving psychological counselling.
A Vaud police spokesman said the vehicle remains missing, and it is not known which way the culprits fled. It is still unclear, he added, whether the two accomplices are members of the Pink Panthers, although their actions suggest it.
The Pink Panthers earned their nickname after British detectives found a diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream, echoing an incident in Peter Sellers’ 1963 film comedy The Pink Panther.
The spokesman said there does not appear to be any danger to the public, as killing is not part of the Pink Panthers’ usual modus operandi. But, he added, the police are “dealing with people who were involved in the armed forces during the war in former Yugoslavia”.
In mid-May, two members of the Pink Panthers – a 45-year-old Serb, who was being temporarily detained for aggravated robbery, and a 47-year-old Frenchman held for aggravated robbery and drug and weapons violations – escaped from Bois-Mermet prison, also in Vaud, with three others, helped by accomplices, police said.
According to the Tribune de Genève, 52-year-old Albrecht had previously escaped from the same jail in 1992.