No arrests in French prisoner hunt, weeks after deadly ambush

Dozens of investigators searched the crime scene in northern France. More than 450 police officers combed the field and its surroundings. Interpol issued an alert.

French officials said they would “spare no effort or means” to track down the heavily armed assailants who ambushed a prison convoy in a brazen daytime attack, killing two guards and freeing an inmate.

But three weeks after an extensive manhunt, the suspects remain at large.

The case has raised uncomfortable questions about whether the French justice system fully understood how dangerous the inmate was and whether its overloaded prisons had played a role.

Authorities have remained silent and have refused to even specify how many people participated in the attack. But they say their investigation has made progress.

Laure Beccuau, Paris’ top prosecutor, told Franceinfo radio last week that authorities had “a number of leads that I would describe as serious.” She did not elaborate, saying only that the ambush had been well organized and that the suspects appeared to have planned hideouts.

The attackers disappeared in stolen cars that were later found burned. Experts say it’s just a matter of when, not if, they will be caught.

“It always takes a little time,” said Christian Flaesch, former head of the Paris police criminal investigations department. But in the end, he added, the fugitives “are almost all captured.”

Violent prison breaks are rare in France. The two prison guards who died in the attack last month, at a highway toll about 140 kilometers northwest of Paris, were the first killed in the line of duty in 32 years.

“This violence is unprecedented,” said Brendan Kemmet, a journalist and author of books about France’s most famous prison escapees, including Antonio Ferrara and Rédoine Faïd, notorious armed robbers who staged separate escapes with helicopters in 2003 and 2018.

Ferrara was captured after four months on the run; Mr. Faïd, after three. How long the inmate who escaped last month, Mohamed Amra, will evade capture is an open question.

“He is now the most wanted man in France,” Kemmet said.

Amra, 30, also known as La Mouche or La Mosca, had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for robbery, one of more than a dozen convictions for crimes including extortion and assault.

But he was also under investigation for more serious charges: in Marseille, in connection with a kidnapping and murder, and in Rouen, in relation to an attempted murder and an extortion case. His attorney declined to comment for this article.

The Interpol alert (a red notice) could indicate suspicions that Amra has fled France. Experts said a flight abroad could not be ruled out, but noted that the ambush occurred about 125 miles from the nearest border and that Amra was a native of the Rouen region, where he was detained before the attack.

Fleeing criminals “tend to return to familiar ground,” Flaesch said.

Fugitives can evade detection by taking refuge and using a network of criminals or personal acquaintances to stay supplied. But those networks are likely now under close surveillance: phones tapped, trips disrupted, routines scrutinized for unusual activity.

Guillaume Farde, a security expert who teaches at Sciences Po University in Paris, said an unusually large pizza order helped police locate the Brussels hideout of Salah Abdeslam, who helped carry out the November attack. 2015 that killed 130 people in the French capital.

“The only way to escape a chase, even temporarily, is to stop moving,” Farde said. “Until someone in the environment makes a mistake or provides information, or both.”

Mr. Abdeslam was arrested after a shooting; he had spent four months on the run. But Abdeslam didn’t have a business to run and experts said Amra might find it harder to stay under the radar.

An undated photograph of Mohamed Amra, the escaped inmate. He is also known as La Mouche or The Fly.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Authorities initially described Mr. Amra as a mid-level criminal whose profile did not match the risky ambush. But the details of the investigations involving him, published in the French media, have come to paint a different picture.

Based on leaked police reports and wiretap records, Le Parisien and BFMTV reported that Amra had juggled cell phones from behind bars to execute schemes that they said included drug trafficking and kidnappings for ransom. He also attempted to purchase assault rifles while in prison, according to reports.

Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister, acknowledged in parliament last week that Amra had shown signs of “dangerousness” that “did not appear to have been taken into consideration.”

He has ordered an internal investigation into the prison administration’s handling of Mr. Amra, even as questions arise about coordination between other branches of the justice system.

In a guest essay in Le Monde, two senior judges, Béatrice Brugère and Jean-Christophe Muller, referenced the case and said efforts to combat organized crime in France were divided between police units that did not always cooperate properly.

Mr. Amra was the subject of separate investigations in different jurisdictions. If those investigations had been merged, the judges wrote, “the true extent of the dangerousness of this criminal and his supporters” would have been clear.

It is still unclear whether police investigators in Marseille and Rouen had shared any information with prison officials, who had increased the security of the Amra convoy, but not to the maximum level.

Still, the case has drawn attention to a French prison system that is bursting at the seams.

France’s official prison watchdog recently warned that incarceration rates were hitting record highs each month: There were almost 77,500 inmates in April, but there was room for fewer than 62,000. This has led to overcrowded and unsanitary cells and violence, the watchdog says.

“We have had chronic staff shortages for the last 10 to 15 years, and hiring does not compensate for vacant positions,” said Wilfried Fonck, a representative of UFAP-UNSA, a prison guards union that organized protests after Amra’s death. . escape. “And on the other hand, the prison population increases every month.”

Reports about Amra conducting business behind bars did not surprise Fonck. In the past, drones have delivered phones to prisoners, he noted, and guards were prohibited from searching prisoners as they left visiting rooms, making it easier for contraband to enter.

Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister, has said the government will work to address the problems highlighted by the Amra case by deploying more anti-drone and phone encryption tools in prisons. He will also consider allowing more systematic searches and the use of video conferencing to avoid unnecessary transportation of inmates, he said.

Unions are hopeful that the government will comply, but are cautious.

“Prisons have been sick for 30 years,” Fonck said. “Not since yesterday.”

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