A brazen attack on a Swiss prison has broken out another member of the "Pink Panthers" ring of jewel thieves and a fellow inmate, spurring a massive manhunt in western Switzerland and across the border with France, Swiss authorities said Friday.
Two vans approached the prison in Orbe, in the Jura Mountain foothills, shortly after 7:30 p.m. Thursday, when the inmates were in the exercise yard, the Tribune de Geneve reported (link in French). Under a hail of AK-47 fire, the accomplices rammed the prison gate and threw two ladders across barbed-wire fencing to spring the imprisoned men.
Asked whether he suspected the breakout was staged by other members of the criminal gang that Interpol calls the Pink Panthers, Anthony Brovarone, spokesman for the Swiss prison network known by its French acronym SPEN, replied: "Yes, definitely."
Police launched a manhunt late Thursday, with at least 50 officers and their search dogs deployed in the area around the prison, which is only 10 miles from the French border, Vaud canton police spokesman Jean-Christophe Sauterel said in a statement.
Two other members of the jewelry-heist group, which Interpol says brings together hundreds of thieves, mostly from the former Yugoslavia, escaped in a similar attack on a prison near Lausanne in May, according to Beatrice Metraux, head of the Vaud canton's interior department, which is responsible for prison administration.
Guards at the Orbe penitentiary were unarmed, Metraux told reporters at a news conference Friday. Officers of a private security firm, Protectas, also patrol the prison and are armed with handguns, she said, but they were unable to intervene amid the waves of automatic weapon fire unleashed by the two assailants.
"This was an invasion, not an escape," Metraux said, attributing the attack to "a heavily armed, organized gang."
The two prisoners who escaped have been identified by prison authorities as Milan Poparic, a 34-year-old Pink Panther from Bosnia, and Swiss citizen Adrian Albrecht, 52.
Poparic was serving a nearly seven-year sentence for a 2009 jewelry store robbery in Neuchatel, and Albrecht, who police said has a long history of criminal activity, was serving seven years for his latest conviction in multiple incidents of robbery, kidnapping, arson and money-laundering.
In May, a 45-year-old Serb and a 47-year-old Frenchman associated with the Pink Panthers were among five inmates who escaped from the Bois-Mermet prison, the Associated Press reported.
Interpol dubbed the jewel thieves' network the Pink Panthers in reference to the 1963 movie by the same name starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and David Niven as a wily jewel thief.
The international police organization estimates the criminal operation has netted at least $400 million in precious metals and stones in about 15 years of robberies of high-end jewelry stores across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United States.