A helicopter landed in the prison yard of a detention center in Quebec City and took off with three inmates, two of whom are charged with murder.
Authorities were on alert across Canada and in the United States after the three men escaped from the Orsainville Detention Centre in suburban Quebec City on Saturday night, provincial police said.
The green chopper landed in the courtyard of the detention center, which has barbed-wire fencing and a watch post, and then quickly took off with the escapees, heading west toward Trois-Rivieres or Montreal, police said.
"We have co-operation with all the police forces across the country and abroad also," said Sgt. Gregory Gomez. "We have many, many officers ... checking every lead."
Police were reluctant to provide many details about their investigation for fear the escapees could be monitoring media reports.
The escapees —identified as Yves Denis, 35, Denis Lefebvre, 53, and Serge Pomerleau, 49 —were originally arrested on drug trafficking and gangsterism charges in 2010, according to police. Denis and Lefebvre were subsequently charged with murder, according to the Quebec provincial police website.
Police said the men were swept up in a major 2010 police operation dubbed Operation Ecrevisse (Project Crayfish), aimed at bringing down a drug trafficking ring in northwestern Quebec. During the raid, police made 51 arrests and seized $905,000 Canadian and 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of cocaine, along with other drugs, police said. They also seized a plane and a helicopter.
The status of the men's cases in the court system was not immediately clear. Provincial jails in Canada normally house people awaiting trial or those serving sentences of up to two years.
Police released photos of the three men on social media and appealed to the public for help, but warned anyone who spotted them not to approach and immediately contact police.
Audrey-Anne Bilodeau, another police spokeswoman, said Saturday that police were working with surrounding airports and Quebec's Valcartier military base to help track down the helicopter.
The Orsainville Detention Centre, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the center of Quebec City, can hold up to 710 offenders.
In March of last year, a helicopter pilot was forced at gunpoint to pluck two inmates from the St-Jerome prison on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Two inmates climbed up a rope ladder into the hovering helicopter and fled.