PARIS, March 30, 2010— -- Police are investigating an old-style robbery in the heart of Paris worthy of a Hollywood movie, and the latest in a series of flamboyant European heists.
A team of robbers, possibly three or four, dug a hole in the wall of an office building to reach the basement of the Credit Lyonnais bank located on the prestigious Avenue de l'Opéra over the weekend and broke open almost 200 safety deposit boxes.
Details of the preliminary investigation reported in the French media suggest that the robbers spent several hours digging the hole from the cellars of the building next to the bank to reach the bank's basement. A security guard inside the bank found himself face to face with the robbers.
"They (the robbers) pinned him to the wall and told him 'don't move if you care for your life'," Sery Koré, a colleague of the security guard, told 24-hour news channel LCI.
Then, the robbers made a hole in the wall next to the door of the bank vault and cracked open close to 200 safes. The value of the stolen goods is still being estimated.
After nine hours of hard labor, the robbers quietly left the bank after having set its basement on fire, destroying evidence and thus considerably complicating the work of the investigators. The security guard escaped unhurt from the basement and alerted French police at 7 a.m. Sunday.
"It was the work of a team of professionals using specific equipment to achieve their ends," Francis Nebot of the Synergie police union told ABC News. "They used hydraulic jacks and above all a thermal lance which can make a hole in just anything."
The robbers did not choose this particular bank by accident. The bank was under renovation and had been closed for several weeks. It was empty, except for the vault.
According to French police, this latest robbery bears similarities with a series of other heists in banks near Paris. In January, burglars robbed a bank in Montreuil, outside Paris. They too took advantage of the closing of the bank for construction work and of a long holiday weekend to break open about 100 safes.
Notorious Pink Panther Gang Alive and Well
French media have been quick to compare the weekend robbery with the "Spaggiari Affair", a heist masterminded by Albert Spaggiari some 35 years ago in Nice in the south of France. Spaggiari's gang dug into the vault of a Société Générale branch, spent two days and two nights inside the vault, breaking open 400 safe deposit boxes, stealing an estimated $32 million worth of money, securities and valuables.
In recent years, France has seen other spectacular robberies.
One of the most famous recent robberies took place Nov. 5, 2009, in Lyon, southeast of Paris. On that day, thirty-nine-year-old Tony Musulin vanished with the armored van he was driving after a routine pick-up from a branch of the Banque de France. Musulin was carrying more than $15 million in the van.
A few days later, French police recovered $12 million in a garage after being tipped off. Musulin turned himself in later the same month.
Since then, Musulin has claimed that he does not know the whereabouts of the missing $3 million. He is due to go on trial in the spring. The maximum prison sentence he faces is only three years since, according to French law, the theft did not include any act of violence.
The so-called Pink Panthers, a group of several dozen infamous burglars from the Balkans and Baltic states, have also made international headlines in recent years. The group has targeted several countries and is believed to be responsible for some of the most audacious heists of all time, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of jewellery mostly in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, Spain, Monaco, among other countries.
Several of its members have been arrested and convicted in France. In 2008, a court in Chambery in the French Alps found three members of the gang guilty of robberies carried out in Biarritz, Cannes, Courchevel and Saint-Tropez. Two of them were given jail terms of six to 10 years. In 2005, the men, wearing floral shirts, robbed a jewel store in chic Saint-Tropez, on the French Riviera, and escaped onboard a speed boat.
Spectacular Casino Heist in Switzerland
Last Sunday, an armed gang raided a casino in Basel, Switzerland, and made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to Swiss prosecutors, around 10 masked men dressed in black arrived in two cars at 4 a.m. on Sunday and stormed the casino while 600 guests were still inside.
One of the robbers smashed the front door with a sledgehammer while the others ran inside with machine guns and pistols. Some of the men entered the basement and emptied registers. They could not get into the strongroom, despite firing shots at the locked door. The gang is still on the run.
The AP contributed to the reporting of this story.