Tue, Dec 16, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Return of the (Yugoslav) Pink Panthers

Interpol is pooling together resources to search for and apprehend a gang of former Yugoslav soldiers that it says is responsible for accurate and highly daring daylight robberies around the world

By Doreen carvajal  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PARIS

Their timing was as impeccable as a Tourbillon, a luxury timepiece whose name means “whirlwind.”

As the second hand ticked, four men — three disguised as women with long blond tresses, sunglasses and winter scarves — stood in front of an intercom and demurely requested to enter the fabled Harry Winston jewelry store on Avenue Montaigne. It was just before closing time on a chilly evening along this golden triangle of boutiques that includes Dior, Chanel and Gucci, the ornate facades and trees resplendent with Christmas lights.

Buzzed in, the men rolled a small valise on wheels into the hushed inner refuge. Then they pulled out a hand grenade and a .357 Magnum. As Parisians strolled unawares past the store’s wrought-iron gates, the robbers smashed display cases and barked out orders — and the names of some of the Harry Winston employees. They spoke French with strong Slovak accents.

There was no time for the police from a nearby station in the luxury district to rush over. In less than 15 minutes the diamond thieves were gone, roaring away in a waiting car through the 5:30pm twilight on Dec. 4 with sacks of emeralds, rubies and chunky diamonds the size of tiny bird eggs valued at more than US$105 million.

The robbers may not have been as suave as celluloid jewel thieves with the charm of David Niven — the debonair phantom bandit, Sir Charles Litton — but the meticulous planning, swift execution and creative style raised suspicion that the Harry Winston heist was the handiwork of a loose global network of battle-hardened ex-soldiers and their relatives from the former Yugoslavia.

Investigators, marveling at the gang’s ingenuity, have dubbed this unlikely network the Pink Panthers. The parallels between film and reality are perhaps best summed up in zee accent and words of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, himself from the original 1963 The Pink Panther.

“In a strange way,” he said of his nemesis, the phantom bandit, “I admire him for he has a unique flair for the dramatic.”

The Serbian Pink Panthers — many whose grim Interpol wanted posters show they come from the town of Nis in southern Serbia — have been roving the world’s luxury capitals since at least 2003 on reconnaissance missions for hard diamonds that can be, in the parlance of luxury security specialists, “soft targets.”

Defense lawyers for some thieves who have been arrested insist that the name Pink Panthers is an invention of drama-loving law enforcement authorities. But investigators say there are about 200 members in the group — linked by village and blood — and they blame the group for scooping up jewels worth more than US$132 million in bold robberies in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco. They live all over Europe, with some working in mundane jobs as hospital cleaners, waiting to be summoned for the next discount flight to a foreign capital, they said.

In Paris, investigators are trying to determine if it was the Pink Panthers that struck again — this time in flowing foulards and wigs — at Harry Winston.

“Of course there is a hypothesis that it is the Pink Panthers, but we cannot at this stage say absolutely that it is them,” said Isabelle Montagne, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office.

It was the second major robbery at the same store in the last year.

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