Tarascon, France: Two armed men attacked a van carrying a jailed prisoner on his way to a French court Monday, firing shots at the vehicle and striking a guard before making their getaway in the southern town of Tarascon, officials said.
The spectacular escape comes in the wake of last year's Hollywood-style helicopter jailbreak by Redoine Faid, a notorious gangster, which led to calls for prison services to beef up security and intelligence gathering.
Monday's raid took place at around 8.30 am, as dawn was breaking, just outside the courthouse where 27-year-old Lotfi Boussouak was due to be brought before a judge. He had just been transferred from jail.
The prisoner, who had been detained since September 2017, faced charges of armed robbery, said prison officials.
Bullet holes in van
Two "heavily armed" gunmen, who had been laying in wait, "fired on the vehicle when it tried to get away with the prisoner", local prosecutor Patrick Desjardins told reporters. Desjardins had earlier suggested that three gunmen had been involved in the snatch.
Several bullet holes were found on the van, including in the front windscreen, and at least 11 cartridge cases were recovered from the scene, including some from an automatic rifle, he added.
The three guards escorting him from a jail in Beziers 150 kilometres (90 miles) away, two men and a woman, were "very shaken" by the incident, but none of them was wounded by the shots, the prosecutor said.
"The first officer to exit the vehicle (...) to ring the (courthouse) intercom was struck with a rifle butt," Desjardins said. Another guard was hit by flying glass.
The gang and the prisoner got away on foot, the prosecutor added.
Desjardins said Boussouak had 14 previous convictions, but he had not been identified as needing special supervision, even though he was linked "to the higher spectrum of crime".
But Karim Terki, a prison guard union representative, said he had already attempted to break out of jail.
The authorities "are really naive; he played nice for several months in order to try to escape again," Terki added.
The last dramatic jailbreak in France took place in late December when a prisoner at the Fresnes prison south of Paris managed to escape from an exercise yard by climbing over a wall with a rope made of bedsheets.
Guards in the watchtowers fired three shots but the prisoner got away.
In July 2018, Redoine Faid, serving a 25-year jail sentence, busted out of jail by helicopter. Two heavily armed accomplices hijacked the aircraft and used smoke bombs to whisk him away from the prison in Reau, 50 kilometres southeast of Paris.
Faid, a career criminal with multiple convictions for armed robbery, was caught after three months on the run.
In 2014, a 40-year-old drug dealer held in a prison in Villepinte, northeast of Paris, was freed after an armed group held up his guards as the prisoner arrived at a local hospital for a check-up. He was recaptured two weeks later.