France Prison Van Attack: Manhunt for Drug Dealer Freed by Gunmen Enters Second Day

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Mohamed Amra, known as “The Fly”, was being transported back from a court hearing when gunmen ambushed the prison van at a toll booth in northern France, killing two prison guards and wounding three others.

Hundreds of police officers have launched a manhunt in France’s northern region of Normandy for Mohamed Amra, a drug dealer who escaped a police van transporting him from court to jail on Tuesday.

Amra, known as “The Fly”, was being transported back from a court hearing in Rouen when gunmen ambushed the prison van at a toll booth in Incarville in the Eure region of northern France, killing two prison guards and wounding three others.

Images on social media showed gunmen in balaclavas circling near an SUV that was in flames. The SUV appeared to have been rammed into the front of the prison van.

The brazen morning attack, extremely rare for that part of northern France, underlines the growing threat of drug crime across Europe, the world’s No.1 cocaine market.

French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told reporters that the incident was the first time a French prison employee had died while working since 1992. He added that one of the guards leaves behind a wife and two children, and the other a spouse who was five months pregnant. Dupond-Moretti said two of those hurt sustained life-threatening injuries.

“Everything, and I mean everything, will be done to find the perpetrators of this heinous crime. These are people for whom life means nothing. They will be arrested. They will be tried. And they will be punished for the crime they committed,” Dupond-Moretti said.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Tuesday that a major manhunt had been launched, with the national gendarmerie and “several hundred” officers involved. Vehicle checks in key locations are also being carried out.

President Emmanuel Macron said “everything is being done to find the perpetrators”.

Paris state prosecutor Laure Beccuau told reporters that two vehicles believed to have been used by the criminals were found scorched in Houtteville and in Gauville-le-Campagne, two towns in Eure where the attack occurred shortly before 11 a.m. local time (5aET).

One of the vehicles, a Peugeot, had been used to ram the police van during the attack, Becuau said. The other vehicle, an Audi, had been following the van and carried the two gunmen.

Beccuau said forensic experts have been carrying out “meticulous tests” at the scene of the crime, and police had been studying video of the attack filmed by eyewitnesses and posted on social media.

Amra is a drug dealer from northern France, the Paris prosecutor’s office and police sources said. He had been convicted of burglary by a court in Evreux on May 10 and was being held at the Val de Reuil prison.

The 30-year-old fugitive inmate had also been indicted by prosecutors in Marseille for a kidnapping that led to a death, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. A police source in Marseille said Amra was a drug dealer with ties to the city’s powerful “Blacks” gang.

Amra’s lawyer, Hugues Vigier, told French news channel BFMTV that the violence of the incident did not correspond with the person he knew. He said Amra had tried to escape from prison on Sunday by sawing at the bars of his cell.

“This element suggests that there was an escape attempt in preparation,” Vigier said.

Beccuau said Amra had 13 convictions, with the first one dating back to October 2009 – when he was 15 years old.

Although Amra was not a “closely watched inmate”, the Paris prosecutor said his transportation required a “level three escort”.

France’s main prison guards unions called for a symbolic one-day shutdown of the country’s jails “to express our emotion in support of our colleagues who died in service.” They also sought an emergency meeting with the justice minister to discuss prison overcrowding and security risks.