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Crime

"Pink Panther" jewel thief stages elaborate prison escape

A member of the "Pink Panther" jewel thief syndicate has escaped in elaborate fashion from a Swiss prison with a fellow inmate. He is the third member of the gang to break out of a Swiss prison in as many months.

Milan Poparic, 34, and fellow inmate Adrian Albrecht, 52, busted out of the Orbe prison in the western canton of Vaud after outside accomplices rammed the main gate and overpowered guards with AK-47s, police said Friday.

Poparic had been serving a six-year, eight-month sentence for the 2009 robbery of a jewelry store in the Swiss city of Neuchatel. The Bosnian national is the third "Pink Panther" to escape from a Swiss prison since May.

Albrecht was serving a seven-year sentence for crimes including robbery, arson and money laundering.

During the prison break, which occurred during an exercise period on Thursday, the accomplices used two vehicles to hit the gate, cleared away barbed wire for Poparic and Albrecht to escape, and then set fire to one of the vehicles before driving off in the other.

Prison 'invasion'

At a press conference on Friday, Beatrice Metraux, the head of Vaud's interior department which oversees prisons, said the facility's guards were unarmed. They were supported by members of the Swiss private security firm Protectas, who were only carrying "simple handguns."

"This is an invasion, rather than an escape, orchestrated by a heavily armed organized gang," she said. Despite the constant automatic weapons fire, no one was injured in the incident.

Police said they have launched a manhunt for Poparic and Albrecht that includes dozens of officers from Swiss and French law enforcement agencies. Orbe is located 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the French border.

Interpol called them the "Pink Panther" gang after British detectives found a diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream, reminiscent of a moment from Peter Sellers' 1963 comedy "The Pink Panther." The group, which has become known for a series of high-profile jewel heists around the world, consists mostly of members from the Balkans.

In mid-May, two "Pink Panther" members escaped from the Bois-Mermet prison along with three others, also helped by accomplices, police said.

dr/tm (AP, AFP, dpa)