'Houdini' prisoner greases his way to daring escape

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South African police are searching for a slippery prisoner who escaped from a top security jail after smearing himself in Vaseline and squeezing through a tiny window.

Ananias Mathe was detained last December on more than 50 charges of murder, rape, armed robbery and hijacking. He was kept in isolation in Pretoria's C-Max prison, which houses notorious offenders who are considered escape risks.

Police who caught him last year describe him as "the ultimate criminal" who would stop at nothing to reach his victims.

Their words rang eerily true this weekend, as it emerged that Mr Mathe covered himself in Vaseline, shook off his handcuffs and shackles and squeezed through a bulletproof window measuring just 20cm by 60cm on Saturday night.

"The window (in Mathe's cell) was so small, he could just get his head through. This is the amazing thing." a Correctional Services spokeswoman, Manelisi Wolela, said yesterday.

Mathe, who has been nicknamed the "Houdini of C-Max", was housed in a high security cell with double-strength walls. He is believed to have used his bare hands to break the two steel bars supporting his bed, which he wedged on either side of the window to help him slither through the tiny gap. Once outside, he paused for a second to write a message to prison officers before sprinting away to freedom. This is not Mathe's first jailbreak. In 2005, he stunned officers by busting out of Johannesburg Central police station's high-risk detention facility.

"We are devastated. We will not sleep until we get him," said Captain Arnold Boonstra, who was part of the team originally responsible for capturing Mathe. "He has extensive military training, which we believe enabled him to escape in the manner in which he did."

During past run-ins with police, Mathe smashed through a highway tollgate, sped up a 21ft concrete incline and took 90-degree turns. Last month, he was caught with a large prison knife. He later confessed that he was planning on using it to kill Captain Boonstra.