A cult leader jailed for sex attacks on children escaped in a helicopter from a prison on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion on Monday, the regional administration said.
Juliano Verbard, who was serving a 15-year term for rapes and sex assaults on children, and two of his jailed followers were hauled on board a chopper hijacked by three accomplices, senior regional officials said.
Verbard's flight was France's 11th helicopter jailbreak since 1986, and is bound to revive questions about security in its jails.
"It's a great first for the island, one that Reunion could well have done without," said prefect Pierre-Henry Maccioni, the French state's representative and police chief in the territory.
"We would never have imagined anyone would use a helicopter to escape on a island where there's very little chance of getting away abroad," he explained, adding that an emergency manhunt had been launched.
The helicopter landed on waste ground a short distance from the jail and the gang escaped in a van that had been waiting for them, officials told AFP. The two crew members were unhurt and are assisting police.
The hijackers had chartered the chopper pretending to be tourists, before seizing control and directing the pilots to Domenjod prison, where it hovered just above an outdoor walkway and took on the escapees.
"One of them put a gun to my temple while another threatened to set fire to a bottle of petrol he had in his hand with a cigarette lighter," the pilot told local broadcaster Antenne Reunion.
Verbard, 27, was the guru of the self-styled "Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary", a cult with no connection to mainstream Catholism on the island of Reunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, some 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) from the African mainland.
He escaped with two followers, the father and son duo Alexin Jismy Michel, 51, and Fabrice Michel, 24, who were jailed for their part in the kidnap of a boy, 12-year-old Alexandre, whom Verbard had decided would be his successor.
He was jailed in February 2008 for attacks on children aged nine and 13, whose mother was the sect's treasurer. He was also convicted of Alexandre's kidnap and is under investigation in another alleged paedophile case.
At the time of his trial, psychiatrist Gerard Toulfayan described Verbard as "a extremely powerful manipulator with great intelligence."
Verbard launched his cult in 2002 after convincing scores of followers that the Virgin Mary appeared to him every month. Adepts paid 20 euros (26 dollars) each for the honour of taking part in an appearance ceremony.
According to Verbard, Mary called him her "Lily of Love".
Authorities attempted to dismantle the sect after Verbard, while on the run from police, was implicated in the kidnap of Alexandre, a boy that the cultist claimed was destined to become his successor at the head of the group.
Spectacular helicopter escapes have become an embarrassment for French penal authorities and, unlike Reunion's Domenjod, jails in mainland France now often have protective nets over their exercise yards.
Since 1986, there had been 10 escapes from French jails in helicopters, most recently in July 2007 when gangster and murderer Pascal Payet managed to get out of Grasse prison in a hijacked chopper.
It was Payet's second successful helicopter jailbreak, and he was convicted of organising a third in which some of his accomplices also escaped.