French jewel gang escapes with £70m

Four armed robbers, including two disguised as women, have pulled off the biggest theft in French history stealing jewellery worth €80m (£70m) from a shop patronised by celebrities just off the Champs Elysées.

According to eye-witnesses, the raiders, who spoke an unidentified foreign language, knew the name of some of the employees as the Harry Winston shop and knew where the most valuable pieces of jewellery were hidden out of sight.

The four men took the entire contents of the store, including the window displays, in a well-organised and swiftly executed operation that lasted under 15 minutes and went unnoticed by many passers-by on the Avenue Montaigne in the 8th arrondissement on Thursday night. No shots were fired during the raid and none of the employees or customers, about 15 of whom were in the shop at the time, were seriously hurt.

The police investigation is being undertaken by the Brigade for the prevention of Banditry (BRB) who are analysing CCTV footage of the store and interviewing the few eyewitnesses. The store was fitted with an alarmed,linked to a central security system in Switzerland.

Whether the bandits were French is not clear. Some reports suggested that the men spoke in a different, but unidentified. language. Eastern European organised crime gangs are known to be operating in France . The resale of stolen jewels in the former Soviet bloc is "much easier than in Western Europe" according to French police sources, who described Eastern Europe as "a new Eldorado for traffickers".

"We are clearly dealing with well-organized, ruthless criminals," said a spokeswoman for the Paris public prosecutor's office.

Fourteen months ago almost to the day, on the 6 October 2007, Euros 10m of jewellery was stolen from the same shop, none of which has ever been recovered despite a 500,000 dollar reward offered by an insurance company.

Harry Winston issued a brief statement on Friday saying that they would "cooperate fully" with the French Police and adding "our first concern is the well-being of our employees."

Harry Winston was founded in 1888 in New York by Jacob Winston but it was his son Harry who succeeded in establishing the chain as a luxury jeweller, whose headquarters is now in

Toronto. Harry Winston has stores across the world's capital cities. The Paris boutique shop was opened in 1957. Amongst the most famous recipients of Harry Winston diamonds are Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor, for whom Richard Burton bought a 61 carat diamond.

The world's largest-ever jewelry heist took place in February 2003, when thieves took diamonds valued at Euros 100 million euros from the vaults at the Antwerp diamond exchange.