A member of the notorious Pink Panther ring of jewel thieves escaped from a Swiss prison just days before a massive heist of $53 million in diamonds from a hotel on the French Riviera.
Milan Poparic, a 34-year-old Bosnian convict, was sprung from the Orbe prison in Vaud Thursday after accomplices rammed a pickup van into a side gate, slung ladders over the barbed wire fence and fired at guards with AK-47s, somehow managing to cause no injuries.
Another convict, 52-year-old Adrian Albrecht, escaped along with Poparic.
The timing of the escape has investigators drawing connections with an audacious heist in which a masked gunman lifted $53 million in jewels from the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes Sunday.
Witnesses said a lone robber walked into the hotel -- the same that served as the setting of the 1955 Hitchcock classic, "To Catch a Thief" -- and demanded bags of gems and jewelry.
Sunday's heist marks the third such theft in Cannes in as many months. In May, two Pink Panther members broke out of a different Swiss prison just three days before $1.5 million in jewels were stolen from a hotel during the annual film festival, and a $2.5 million necklace vanished after a party in nearby Cap d'Antibes.
Poparic was serving a six-year, eight-month sentence for robbing a jewelry shop in Neuchatel in 2009. Albrecht, who escaped from the same jail in 1992, was serving seven years for kidnapping, arson and money laundering.
"We never had any problem with Poparic," said Anthony Brovarone, a spokesman for Vaud jails. "He was supposed to be free in January 2014, less than six months from now. We had no reason to fear he would try to escape."
"We were never told ... that Poparic was a member of Pink Panther group," he said. "Had we known, Poparic would have been placed [in high security confinement]."
Interpol described the Pink Panthers group as a loose network involving about 200 people linked to 341 robberies spanning Dubai, Switzerland, the U.S., Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco and totaling $438 million. Most of the members are from the former Yugoslavia.