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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Hijacked helicopter in new French jailbreak
Bullet-riddled watchtower at Fresnes prison after March escape
Commando-style raids are becoming commonplace
A search is under way in southern France for three escaped prisoners, after the latest in a series of spectacular jail break-outs.

The inmates, who were accused of running an international drugs ring, fled the Luynes remand centre near the southern city of Aix-en-Provence on Monday, aided by accomplices who had hijacked a helicopter.

It was the third major jailbreak in France since March - two previous cases involved a fake bazooka attack and a demolition operation.

The three escapees, Franck Perletto, Michel Valero and Eric Alboreo, were due to go on trial in the Mediterranean port of Marseilles in May on charges of trafficking cocaine and cannabis resin.

Correspondents say this and other incidents are highly embarrassing to the centre-right government, which has made cutting crime its top domestic priority.

Quick getaway

The escape was a commando-style operation, with men lowered from the helicopter sawing through steel netting and dropping a ladder into the courtyard.

FRENCH JAILBREAKS
13 March 2003 - Rocket launcher used to free Italian gangster Antonio Ferrara
7 March 2003 - murder suspect Joseph Menconi escapes 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 airlifts three men from Draguignan jail
May 2001 - guards taken hostage in failed helicopter break-out from Paris
June 1986 - Nadine Vaujour pilots helicopter to pluck husband Michel from Paris' La Sante jail
The three men, who were on an exercise break, climbed up to the helicopter and were flown away.

The entire operation reportedly took less than three minutes.

Police said the helicopter landed shortly afterwards in a nearby sports stadium, and the escapees fled by car.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to catch the three men.

"Teams are mobilised to find them and put them back where they belong - in prison," he said.

The Justice Ministry has begun a programme of prison reform including large-scale searches of high-security prisons for materials which could be used in future escapes.

Overcrowding

But prison guards have criticised the government for what they say is a failure to tackle the problem of overcrowding in prisons.

The prison population in France is at a record high level with nearly 60,000 people in jail - one in every thousand people.

"It is time for the government to take urgent measures for French prisons and the staff who work in them to improve security," said Frederic Grandcolas, secretary general of the prison guards' union.


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