“Top gangsters” make helicopter jailbreak
Three men described as "top gangsters" escaped last Thursday in a spectacular helicopter jailbreak from Bruges prison - just hours after the justice minister, kitted out in full prison officer's uniform, had made an official visit to the jail.
Hijackers leave accomplice behind to pick up three robbers
The three men - Ashraf Sekkaki, Abdelhaq Melloul-Khayari and Mohamed Johri - were picked up on the exercise yard of the wing of the prison reserved for long-term male prisoners. The helicopter had been hired by a man and a woman in Diksmuide for a tourist overflight of Bruges, then hijacked at gunpoint. The pilot set down inside the exercise yard, and one of the hijackers was dropped off, police presume because the helicopter would otherwise have been too heavy. It then picked up the three escapees and took off.
Soon after, at Aalter near the E40 motorway, the gang carjacked a Mercedes and forced the driver to take them as far as Melle outside Ghent, where she was freed unharmed. As Flanders Today went to press, the whereabouts of the escapees and their accomplice were unknown.
News reports have concentrated on Sekkaki, aged 25, who has a record of numerous offences committed as a minor, and who has not been out of prison since he was first sentenced as an adult at the age of 16 - other than during one of his many escapes from custody, one of which lasted a year. His record includes armed robberies, carjackings and tiger kidnapping (where bank employees are held hostage while their premises are robbed). In 2007 his brother was caught with a rope-ladder and firearm when police raided his home on a tip that Sekkaki was planning an escape by helicopter. Sekkaki himself has always maintained the plan was a joke.
In letters sent to De Morgen newspaper prior to the escape and published last week, Sekkaki claims he is a victim of a system which "spat him out". "I have hate feelings, a sort of constriction in my stomach that shrinks and grows like a tumour," he is quoted as writing. "We carry our imprisonment with us like a sickness. But the ‘hospital' does nothing to help its patients. On the contrary it perpetuates their complaint, and injects new germs that will later cause new illnesses to break out."
Melloul-Khayari, aged 42, is associated with the gang of Hassan Maâche, responsible for robbery with extreme violence and specialised in attacking security vans. He is also a recidivist escapee: once he walked out of the front gate of Verviers prison having changed places with his brother.
Johri, meanwhile, is serving five years for armed robberies of a Lidl supermarket, a bank branch and a toyshop.
Sekkaki was recently transferred from the high-security wing of the prison to the general wing for long-term prisoners. Only the high-security yard is fitted with security cables designed to make a helicopter escape impossible. Bruges was one of five prisons named as priorities by former justice minister Laurette Onkelinx in 2007 for cables or nets following the escape in October of that year from Ittre prison of Nordin Benallal. Last week the prisons directorate blamed the public works department for the lack of progress, pointing out that an application had been submitted to cover other yards in Bruges prison. "But we are not the owners of the building," a spokesman said. "We can only state our priorities and then hope they are carried out."
The escape is embarrassing for the government not only for the fact that the promise of escape-proof nets appears to have been shelved, but because the current justice minister, Stefaan De Clerck, was on the scene on the day of the escape. De Clerck was on a visit to the prison on Thursday morning, and for the cameras of the VRT changed into a prison officer's uniform to walk the gangways and see what the job might feel like.
• In other news, the man suspected of being the mastermind behind the biggest-ever diamond heist in Antwerp has been arrested in possession of a quantity of stones. Leonardo Notabartolo, 57, was stopped at a routine traffic check in Milan, and his brand-new BMW searched after police realised his identity. They found just over one kilo of diamonds hidden in the car in 21 packages. The stones are now being examined to see if they are part of the loot from the robbery of the strongroom of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre on the weekend of St Valentine's in February 2003. Notabartolo, who served six years in Hasselt prison for the robbery, claims he bought the stones legitimately. The takings from the heist, estimated at €100 million, have never been recovered.