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Officials cite prison overcrowding in French gangster's escape

By Pierre Meilhan, Greg Botelho, and Jacque Wilson CNN
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Sun April 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French justice officials say there is a clear prison "overpopulation problem"
  • Redoine Faid was a wanted criminal in the '90s known for attacking armored trucks
  • Faid held guards at gunpoint and used explosives to burst through a prison's doors
  • Law enforcement in France and elsewhere in Europe are now hunting for him

(CNN) -- The brazen escape of a notorious gangster in France may be due partly to a problem plaguing the prison that couldn't hold him: overcrowding.

There is a clear "overpopulation problem in the Sequedin prison and this hinders the job of guarding prisoners," a spokesman for the French Ministry of Justice told CNN on Sunday, commenting on the escape of Redoine Faid.

Faid allegedly held five people, including four guards, at gunpoint at the detention center in the northern city of Lille on Saturday, officials said.

He burst his way to freedom by allegedly detonating explosives that destroyed five doors, penitentiary union spokesman Etienne Dobrometz told CNN affiliate BFMTV.

French prison escapee Redoine Faid.
French prison escapee Redoine Faid.
Redoine Faid, said to be one of France's most dangerous gangsters, escaped from the Lille-Sequedin penitentiary in Sequedin, France, on Saturday, April 13. Redoine Faid, said to be one of France's most dangerous gangsters, escaped from the Lille-Sequedin penitentiary in Sequedin, France, on Saturday, April 13.
Daring escape from French prison
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His whereabouts are unknown.

French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira told reporters on Saturday that a European arrest warrant covering 26 countries had been issued and that Interpol had been called in.

An Interpol spokesman told CNN no public notice had been issued on Faid. Interpol can also issue "restricted" notices that are not public. The spokesman did not say whether one had been issued in this case.

Police detained a brother of Faid for questioning only, according to a law enforcement source, who did not provide other details about that development.

The source spoke on the condition of not being identified because the person is not permitted to discuss the matter publicly.

The source also estimated that up to 150 French police are working on the case.

Faid's prison escape raises a number of questions: How did an inmate get guns and explosives? How did he manage to use those to force his way out? And, after all that, why is he still at large?

The four guards who Faid allegedly held hostage "are safe and sound," said Lille prosecutor Frederic Fevre.

Still, officials from the prison guards' union pressed Taubira to provide better safety measures inside prisons, including more thorough searches of those who enter, BFMTV reported.

Built in 2005, the Lille-Sequedin penitentiary is not old, but it's not well designed to keep watch of prisoners, said Jimmy Delliste, a former associate director there.

"The construction ... makes it particularly difficult to manage detainees, who are particularly difficult to watch," Delliste told BFMTV.

Modern-day gangster

Faid fashioned himself as a modern-day gangster.

He thought big -- getting inspiration from the movies. He wore a hockey mask, like Robert DeNiro's character in "Heat," and acted audaciously in attacking armored trucks among other targets.

After more than a decade in prison, though, the Frenchman insisted he'd changed.

This promise didn't last long, according to French authorities.

A year after his autobiography was published, Faid, who was free at the time, landed back behind bars in 2011.

One person not surprised by Faid's breakout is his lawyer, Jean-Louis Pelletier.

Pelletier had planned to meet his client soon in preparation for an upcoming trial tied to a May 2010 attack in Villiers-sur-Marne, east of Paris, that left a 26-year-old policewoman dead.

"He is remarkably intelligent, and he is using his intellect to serve his ambitions," Pelletier told BFMTV. "(And Faid) cannot stand being imprisoned anymore."

In his autobiography, "Robber: From Suburbs to Organized Crime," Faid chronicled his progression from a petty thief to one of France's most notorious criminals, according to the book's publisher, La Manufacture De Livres.

In 1998, after three years on the run during which he fled to Switzerland, Faid was caught. Sentenced to 20 years, he ended up spending more than a decade in high-security prisons around France.

After being released, Faid put himself out there -- not only with his book, but also as the subject of numerous interviews.

The high-adrenaline life of crime he described resembled that of another famous French gangster, Jacques Mesrine.

The country's most-wanted man in the 1970s, Mesrine made his name as a charismatic, press-courting criminal known for his daring bank heists and spectacular prison breaks.

Mesrine's story ended in 1979, when he was gunned down by police on the streets of Paris.

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