A massive manhunt was underway in France on Wednesday after an armed gang ambushed a prison convoy and freed a gangster known as “The Fly,” killing two guards.

Hundreds of police officers have been deployed to northern France in search of the fugitive Mohamed Amra, who escaped Tuesday when gunmen laid in wait for a prison van transporting him, ramming a car into it before opening fire on the guards. 

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said “unprecedented’ efforts were underway to apprehend Amra and the gang, with 450 officers participating in the manhunt. The minister expressed hope that the fugitive and assailants would be caught “in the coming days.” 

“The means employed are considerable,” he told RTL radio, according to the Associated Press. “We are progressing a lot.”

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Surveillance footage shows armed prison break in France

A screen grab from a CCTV video shows gunmen wearing balaclavas ambushing a prison van to free a drug dealer in Val-de-Reuil, France May 14, 2024. (Reuters)

The attack appeared to have been carefully prepared. The convoy was transporting Amra back to jail in the Normandy town of Évreux after a hearing with an investigator in Rouen when it was ambushed on the A154 freeway.

The prison van and another prison escort vehicle had just gone through a toll booth on the freeway when the van was rammed head-on by a car. The Paris prosecutor’s office told the Associated Press the car had been stolen and had gone through the toll booth a few minutes ahead of the prison convoy and then waited there.

Mohamed Amra mugshot

Undated mugshot of 30-year-old French inmate Mohamed Amra, also known as “The Fly”, who was freed by accomplices in a May 14, 2024 deadly French prison van attack that left two guards dead and three injured.  (Reuters)

Another car trailed behind the convoy and appeared to box it in. Gunmen jumped out of the vehicles and opened fire on the prison van, the prosecutors’ office said. 

The armed gang then fled with Amra.

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Fire burns outside detention center in France where fugitive Mohamed Amra escaped from prison

A fire burns as prison staff block the entrance of the Detention Center after gunmen freed a drug dealer, killing two prison guards and severely wounding three others, in Val De Reuil, France, May 15, 2024. (REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Two officers were killed in the ambush. One was a 52-year-old captain in the prison service, a father of two with over three decades of experience, prosecutor Laure Beccuau said. The other was a 34-year-old married father-to-be, she said.

Known as “The Fly,” Amra is a 30-year-old from northern France. Police sources told Reuters the fugitive is involved with drug trafficking. 

According to prosecutors, Amra had been convicted of burglary by a court in Évreux  on May 10 and was being held at the Val de Reuil prison. He had also been indicted by prosecutors in Marseille for a kidnapping that led to a death, officials said. 

The violent attack has shocked France. Prison workers held moments of silence across the country Wednesay in honor of the officers who were killed.

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Prison staff block entrance to detention center in France after prison break

A view of the entrance of the Detention Center as prison staff block it after gunmen freed a drug dealer, killing two prison guards and severely wounding three others, in Val De Reuil, France, May 15, 2024. (REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Opposition leaders criticized French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government, saying the country has gone too soft on drug crime and is headed towards endemic gang violence, like in Mexico.

“We’re on a path to Mexicanisation,” Bruno Retailleau, leader of the main centre-right opposition party in the French senate, said in a radio interview. “Prisons are sieves. Dealers run their drug trafficking businesses from jail.”

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Tuesday’s attack came on the same day that France’s Senate released a major report on drug trafficking, warning the country faced a “tipping point” from rising violence. 

The report suggested that French policy makers create a new agency similar to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to combat drug crime, with a $3.8 billion annual budget. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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