Escaped French prisoners head for Belgium

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The gangsters, armed with at least one handgun, escaped from a jail in central France on Sunday.

LILLE - A pair of gangsters who blasted their way out of a French prison and led police in a high speed cross-country road chase on Monday appeared to be headed towards Belgium, police said.

The convicts, armed with at least one handgun, escaped from a jail in central France on Sunday after taking two guards hostage and using smuggled explosives to blow open security gates, officials said.

They stole a vehicle and police, including officers from the elite GIPN special weapons squad, gave chase in squad cars and helicopters.

At one point the escapees ploughed into a passing car, which they then hijacked to continue their flight north.

Evading a major police dragnet, the pair reached the suburbs of Paris, 250 kilometres (150 miles) further north, where they abandoned their hostages and continued north, police said.

On Monday, they kidnapped a motorist and his grandson in the northern town of Amiens and forced them to drive to Arras, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) closer to the Belgian border, where they released them unharmed.

"They appear to be heading towards Belgium," a security official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that the pair appeared not to have prepared their flight as carefully as the jailbreak itself.

Outside Arras, the gunmen stole another car, its terrified owner said.

"I was getting some leaflets out of the boot when a man pulled up and asked for directions to the A1 motorway," said 51-year-old Cathy Trevaux. The A1 connects Paris to the northern city of Lille and the Belgian border.

"I told him, but he got out of his car and pointed a gun at me. He said, 'Don't try to understand, just give me the keys to your car'," she said.

"I just wanted to run away, but the other guy who had remained in the car that they came in got out and tried to drag me off with them. Luckily another car came down the street, and they made off," she said.

Police sources identified one of the fugitives as Christophe Khider, 37, who had been serving a life sentence since 1999 for an armed robbery in which a hostage was killed and another 15 years for an earlier escape attempt.

The second was 30-year-old Omar Top El Hadj, who was convicted for his role in a shoot-out with police and would not have come up for parole until 2020.

Two young women who visited the escapees at the jail shortly before they produced the gun and some explosives have been detained for questioning, Lyon police investigator Claude Catto told AFP.

France's elite GIPN police squad has been deployed to hunt them, while gendarmes set up road blocks and deployed two helicopters to try to find two prisoners described as "armed and dangerous."

Sunday's jailbreak was not the first to hit Moulins jail, a high security facility where police unions have complained of serious safety lapses.

On June 9, 2000, three inmates fled in a stolen helicopter that picked them from the roof of the jail. And on February 12, 2003 three more convicts used smuggled explosives to blast down a gate before they were overpowered.


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