France’s justice minister on Wednesday ruled out resigning after a notorious robber was broken out of prison by helicopter, despite a recent warning that the convict was on the verge of trying to escape.
Career criminal Redoine Faid, who had fled from prison once before, was sprung from the Reau prison near Paris on Sunday by heavily armed accomplices.
After initially fanning out nearly 3,000 officers to find Faid, 46, and his helpers, police say 100 specialised agents are now trying to track him down.
Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet has drawn fire over claims of insufficient security at the site, including the lack of anti-helicopter nets over the prison’s courtyard.
French daily Le Figaro has also published what it says is an email written by a regional prison official seeking Faid’s urgent transfer to another facility, citing “a serious threat of an attempt” to escape.
But France’s national prison administration responded that a transfer would be possible only in September.
Calling the delay “very dangerous” for guards, the regional official added that “today we’re acting because it’s urgent, tomorrow we’ll be acting after the fact!”
Belloubet confirmed Wednesday that the request had been made, but that she was not involved in the decision.
“Of course I am fully responsible for my administration, but I did not personally take this decision,” she told RTL radio.
More than 300 prisoners are under maximum surveillance in France, she said.
“Obviously I’m not the one who decides on the conditions of detention for each of these detainees,” she added.
Asked if she was considering calls for her resignation from some opposition lawmakers, Belloubet said: “No, not at all.
“We’re dealing with a very serious situation. We need to react not with the posturing that I have sometimes heard, but with calm and determination,” she said.
The brazen jailbreak of Faid, who has said he was inspired by movie baddies such as Tony Montana in “Scarface”, began Sunday at an airfield northeast of Paris.
Two men posing as flight school students, who had already taken an introductory flight, forced the instructor to take them to the prison, threatening harm to his family.
“It seems like the stress is more intense this morning than yesterday or the day before,” the instructor, Stephane Buy, told RTL radio on Wednesday.
He said the men first forced him to land in a nearby field where they held him at gunpoint and struck him with their pistols while telling him their plans.
They then headed for another field where they were joined by other accomplices, but the helicopter wouldn’t re-start.
“And that’s when it became a nightmare… They probably thought I was faking an engine problem,” Buy said.
“They kept hitting me with their rifle butts, harder and harder” until he passed out, he said, before being woken again by the attackers.
After arriving at the prison and freeing Faid, they took off for the suburb of Roissy northeast of Paris, where they then tried to set the helicopter on fire before fleeing by car.
The vehicle was later found burned out in a shopping mall car park, where they then left in a white van that was later found torched in the Oise department north of Paris on Monday.
Faid had been serving a 25-year term over a botched 2010 robbery in which a policewoman was killed, though he claims her death was accidental.