Three heavily armed men attacked a van carrying a jailed criminal on his way to court Monday, firing shots outside the courthouse and striking a guard before making their getaway in the southern French town of Tarascon, officials said.
The spectacular escape took place at around 8.30am as the prisoner was being transferred from a prison to be presented before a judge.
The guards “had left the van to ring the doorbell to the courthouse when the armed men fell upon them,” said Nicolas Burtz, a local prison guard union representative.
The gang shot out the van’s tyres and knocked to the ground a female guard who had refused to let the prisoner go, according to the justice ministry and the local prosecutor.
The guards, who had escorted the prisoner from a jail in Beziers, 150 kilometres (90 miles) away, did not fire their weapons.
“It was very violent. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a van attacked with automatic weapons. It was really shocking for the guards, who reacted well,” an official in France’s prison administration agency said.
The 27-year-old prisoner, who was not immediately identified, had been jailed since September 2017 awaiting trial for armed robbery and criminal gang activity, prison officials said.
“The prisoner had already attempted to escape while previously in jail,” according to Karim Terki, another prison guard union representative.
Authorities “are really naive; he played nice for several months in order to try to escape again,” Terki added.
The last spectacular 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 the notorious gangster Redoine Faid made a Hollywood-style prison break when two heavily armed accomplices hijacked a helicopter and used smoke bombs and angle grinders to whisk him away from the prison in Reau, 50 kilometres southeast of Paris.
Mr Faid, a career criminal with multiple convictions for armed robbery, was caught after three months on the run.