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Last Updated:  Thursday, 13 March, 2003, 11:43 GMT
Jail escape forces French rethink
Bullet-riddled watchtower
Watchtowers were raked with bullets
The French Government is being forced to rethink its prison security policy after the most spectacular breakout yet in a series of daring escapes from French jails.

In scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood film, gangsters used rocket launchers to blow holes in the prison walls, raked guardposts with gunfire and set fire to cars.

The operation successfully freed Italian gangster Antonio Ferrara, who was jailed for bank robbery but was also suspected of murder and a string of other offences.

We are faced with a new type of escape that we haven't experienced until now which are military-type operations... with the use of weapons of war
Dominique Perben
French Justice Minister
The drama came less than a week after another murder suspect, Joseph Menconi, escaped from a prison in Corsica when accomplices used a fake bazooka to threaten guards.

French Justice Minister Dominique Perben said the methods being used were posing huge problems for the authorities.

"We are faced with a new type of escape that we haven't experienced until now, which are military-type operations... with the use of weapons of war," Mr Perben told Europe-1 radio.

A special panel was being convened by the government on Friday, Mr Perben said, to discuss how to prevent such escapes.

Burnt-out car
Nearby cars were set ablaze
One prison trade union, Alliance, condemned a "new type of commando whose members no longer hesitate to use 'weapons of war' to attack our institutions."

France has suffered a string of embarrassing break-outs.

Some have used helicopters to airlift people to freedom.

One key ETA suspect escaped from a high-security prison after trading places with his brother during a visit.

Wednesday's breakout from Fresnes prison outside Paris left flames licking the prison walls.

The escape gang are believed to have set fire to nearby cars to provide a distraction.

March 2003 - murder suspect Joseph Menconi escapes in Corsica with aid of fake bazooka
Dec 2002 - ETA suspect Ibon Fernandez Iradi escapes from Bayonne
Aug 2002 ETA suspect Ismael Berasategui Escudero switches place with brother
March 2002 - helicopter swoops to airlift three men from Draguignan jail
May 2001 - guards taken hostage in failed helicopter break-out from Fresnes
June 1986 - Nadine Vaujour pilots helicopter to pluck husband Michel from Paris' La Sante jail
"The commando gang entered the high-security section of the prison and gave Antonio Ferrara explosives which allowed him to blow open the bars on the window of his cell," said Christophe Marques, a prison officers' representative from the FO union.

Police believe six or seven gunmen were involved in the jailbreak. Some were apparently wearing police uniform.

The attack began at about 0430 local time (0530GMT) on Wednesday morning.

One group used automatic weapons to fire on the guardposts, while other attackers blew open the prison's metal gates and then blasted holes in the interior walls.

No prison guards were hurt in the raid.

The gang made their getaway by car only 15 minutes after the audacious raid began.

Police are investigating possible links between the breakouts of Ferrara and Menconi, who are believed to be gangland allies and had both escaped before.

Ferrara, whose previous escape came during a medical visit, was found last September to have got hold of explosives and detonators while in prison.

France rapped over ETA escape
23 Dec 02 |  Europe
ETA suspect escapes in France
22 Dec 02 |  Europe

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