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Thursday August 22, 2013 MYT 3:05:01 AM
Thursday August 22, 2013 MYT 3:06:01 AM
PARIS (Reuters) - Police in southern France have arrested a member of the "Pink Panther" gang of jewel thieves who had been on the run since he escaped from a Swiss prison three months ago, a police source said on Wednesday.
The man, a French citizen of Montenegrin origin who is in his forties, was arrested on Monday at a villa near the southern city of Avignon at a time when the Riviera is on high alert after a string of jewellery heists in recent months.
"He had been living for several weeks in a villa equipped with surveillance cameras. He must have been sleeping with just one eye because when the police arrived at 6 a.m., he jumped out of the window," the source, a senior investigator, told Reuters.
He said police hoped the man might be able to provide tip-offs about a flurry of robberies from high-end jewellery stores in Cannes and Nice, including a $136-million job in July that ranks as France's biggest-ever jewel heist.
A 1-million-euro ($1.34 million) reward has been offered in exchange for information that could recover the jewels.
The Pink Panther gang has built up a reputation over several years for spectacular heists targeting high-end jewellery stores in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States.
The group earned its nickname after a robbery in 2003 in London when a gang member hid a diamond in a pot of beauty cream, which is just like the plot of one of the "The Pink Panther" comedy detective films, a series that began in the 1960s starring Peter Sellers.
Its network of several hundred members, many from the former Yugoslavia, has staged about 340 robberies in luxury jewellery stores in 35 countries since 1999, making off with booty worth more than 330 million euros, according to Interpol.
A former member of the Foreign Legion, the suspect arrested on Monday was wanted in Macedonia and in Switzerland, where he was jailed for armed robbery until he escaped earlier this year.
He fled from a prison in Lausanne in May with four other detainees. Three accomplices had brought a ladder and cut through fencing wire, helping the group slip out of the jail courtyard during recreation time. ($1 = 0.7476 euros)
(Reporting by Gerard Bon; Writing by Natalie Huet; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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