Three suspected members of the "Pink Panther" gang of international jewel thieves were in custody on Saturday following a daring police swoop outside the Monte Carlo Casino.
By Peter Allen in Paris
Published: 4:00PM BST 20 Jun 2009
Police said one of the men was a Serb on the group's "Most Wanted" list, prompting speculation that he could be Dragan Mikic, the gang's fugitive boss who escaped from prison in 2005.
The Pink Panther group is believed to be behind the theft of some £150 million worth of goods from luxury stores around the world during the past two decades.
Many of the group's members are ex-soldiers from eastern Europe with past convictions for violence - and a reputation for some of the most glamorous heists in criminal history.
Specialist police carrying machine guns and stun grenades surrounded the men's 4x4 Porsche on Thursday after it pulled up outside the world famous casino in the billionaire's playground of Monaco .
"It was broad daylight when their vehicle pulled up in Casino Square late in the morning," said a source in the principality.
"They were hard-looking men, but very well dressed in designer casual wear and sunglasses.
"The square is full of jewellery shops, and it appeared that the men were planning an armed raid. Their 4x4 parked alongside Ferraris and Bentleys, whose owners were shopping or visiting the casino.
"But as soon as one of the men got out of the car all hell broke lose. Armed police appeared from everywhere, shouting orders and telling the men to lie on the ground.
"There could have been a shoot-out but the police did a brilliant job. The men were handcuffed and whisked away to a secure prison within minutes."
The gang made its name in 1993 after stealing a £500,000 diamond from a jewellers in London's Mayfair and hiding it in a jar of face cream, copying a tactic used in the 1963 Pink Panther film, tarring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, and earning the group its nickname.
The sophisticated members - all are said to speak several languages and travel on genuine passports issued to other people - have since carried out around 120 heists across the globe, including further thefts in London, as well as in Paris , Dubai , Geneva , Monaco and Tokyo .
Last year a court in Chambéry, south-eastern France, found three Serb members of the Pink Panthers guilty of robberies in Biarritz, Cannes, Courchevel and Saint-Tropez.
Boban Stojkovic, 35, and Goran Drazic, 35, were respectively handed down six-year and ten-year sentences.
The gang's mastermind, Dragan Mikic, 33, who could be among the three alleged members captured on Saturday, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years.
Mikic, who is said to carry a .375 Magnum hand gun at all times, has been on the run since escaping via a ladder from a French prison in 2005, as accomplices peppered the compound's watch tower with machinegun fire.
The Pink Panthers' attention to detail led one criminologist describing their work as "artistry".
In Biarritz , for example, they applied fresh paint to a bench opposite the jewellery store they were about to rob to deter potential witnesses from sitting on it.
In 2005, they raided a Saint-Tropez jewellers dresssed in flowery T-Shirts before escaping in a speed boat.
In 2008, eight Pink Panthers rammed two limousines through the front window of a luxury shopping mall in Dubai to break into the Graff jewellers, escaping with £8 millon worth of watches and gems.
Christophe Haget, judicial police chief in Monaco, said: "Their cold determination is only matched by their highly meticulous mode of operation. No fortress scares them."
Interpol, the international police organisation, said there may be as many as 200 Pink Panther criminals, most Serb or Montenegrin nationals with military experience.
A Monaco police spokesman said: "Following a police raid on Thursday, three suspected jewel thieves are in custody. They are being questioned pending charges."
Art Hostage Comments:
Art Hostage cannot get confirmation if it is Dragan Mikic or Radovan Jelusic.
Art Hostage has been told however, the main suspect is believed to be the armed robber of Chopards in Paris a couple of weeks ago.