France prison van attack: All we know about the ambush and fugitive Amra

Armed men ambushed a prison van to free a prisoner killing two prison guards, triggering a major police manhunt.

A screen grab from a CCTV video shows gunmen wearing balaclavas ambushing a prison van to free a drug dealer in Val-de-Reuil
A screengrab from a security camera video shows gunmen wearing balaclavas ambushing a prison van to free a drug dealer in France [Reuters]

Armed men wearing balaclavas ambushed a prison van in northern France on Tuesday to free a convicted “criminal”, notorious as “the fly”, killing two prison guards, severely wounding three and triggering a major police manhunt.

Here is what we know about the incident:

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What happened in France and when?

Two prison officers were killed in an ambush on a prison van in the Normandy region in northern France. The incident took place shortly before 11am (09:00 GMT) near a toll booth in Incarville commune.

According to officials, a black Peugeot 5008 rammed a police van transporting prisoner Mohamed Amra, who was reportedly a drug dealer and was involved in other crimes also, from court to Evreux jail. As a result, three other officers were injured, one of whom remains in critical condition.

Amra escaped, setting off a manhunt involving several hundred officers.

The French police said on Tuesday evening they found two burned-out vehicles used by the attackers.

The victims were the first prison officers to be killed in the line of duty since 1992, Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said.

Where did the attack happen?

The ambush took place near a toll booth at Incarville on the A154 motorway near Rouen in the Eure department of Normandy.

Amra was being transported between the towns of Rouen and Evreux. Following the attack, traffic was stopped on the A154 motorway.

Who is Mohamed Amra?

According to reports, Amra has ties with a gang in the southern city of Marseille, an area that has been affected by drug-related gang violence.

The 30-year-old had been convicted of burglary by a court in Evreux on May 10 and was being held at the Val de Reuil prison.

Prosecutors said Amra had also been indicted by prosecutors in Marseille for a kidnapping that led to a death.

Amra was born on March 10, 1994, in Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region. He was known by many other aliases – Momo, La Mouche (the fly), Yanis and Schtroumpf.

According to a report by the Reuters news agency, he was a drug dealer with ties to the city’s powerful “Blacks” gang.

A Le Monde report said the fugitive was not a “big fish” but rather in the “middle-of-the-pack of the gangster hierarchy”.

However, his transport still reportedly required a “level three escort”, which meant the presence of five prison officers accompanying him.

A photo shows a police van outside the police station of La Courneuve, a northern Paris suburb
The police station of La Courneuve, a northern Paris suburb, on March 18, 2024 [Clotilde Gourlet/AFP]

Amra’s lawyer, Hugues Vigier, told BFM TV that the degree of violence did not correspond with the person he knew. He said Amra had tried to escape from prison on Sunday by sawing the bars of his cell.

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

What do we know about the victims?

One of the guards killed was a 52-year-old father of twins, according to Paris Prosecutor Laure Beccuau. He had three decades of experience.

The other guard who was killed was expecting a child with his wife who is five months pregnant.

According to local media reports, three other officers sustained injuries during the assault.

What is the latest on the ground in France?

France’s main prison guards’ union 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”.

It also sought an emergency meeting with the justice minister to discuss prison overcrowding and security risks.

According to local media reports, the shutdown was observed in several cities, including Nice, Caen, and Marseille.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X he had ordered the activation of France’s Epervier plan, a special operation launched by the gendarmerie, a branch of the armed forces, in such situations.

Local reports said on Wednesday about 450 officers were mobilised in the Eure department.

“Absolutely everything will be done to find the perpetrators of this despicable crime,” Darmanin told BFM TV on Tuesday.

What were the reactions?

French President Emmanuel Macron said on X, “Every effort is being made to find the perpetrators of this crime so that justice can be done in the name of the French people.”

“We will be uncompromising,” he added, describing the attack as a “shock”.

Amra’s mother said in an interview her son did not give any indication of trying to escape. After learning about the ambush, she said she broke down.

“I broke down, I cried – I was so unwell – how can lives be taken away in this way?” she told RTL.

“This brutal attack shows the threat of organised crime is as big as the terrorist threat,” the European Union’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson wrote on X. “We must counter it with the same determination.”

Law and order is a major issue in French politics ahead of next month’s European elections and the incident led to fierce reactions from politicians, especially the far right.

“It is real savagery that hits France every day,” said Jordan Bardella, the top candidate for the far-right National Rally (RN), which is leading opinion polls for the elections.

The attack comes just months before the Olympic Games start and days after the Olympic flame arrived in Marseille.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies