BRUSSELS Three prisoners escaped from a jail outside the Belgian city of Bruges in a hijacked helicopter on Thursday, authorities said.
Media reports said the escapees flew to the town of Aalter, then seized a black Mercedes from its female driver and robbed a service station before heading for the Belgian coast.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said no one had been hurt, and that the jailbreak had not been from the high-security wing, which had nets to prevent such escapes.
However, media said the escapees included one of Belgium's most dangerous criminals, Ashraf Sekkaki, who had more than 16 convictions for violence, including kidnappings for ransom.
The Belga news agency quoted the spokesman as saying that one of the accomplices who flew the helicopter into the jail had been left behind, perhaps because there was not enough room for all to get away in the helicopter.
Belga earlier reported that four prisoners had escaped.
It is not the first time a helicopter has been used for an escape in Belgium.
In October 2007, Nordin Benallal, a self-styled "escape king" with convictions for armed robbery and carjacking, broke out of Ittre prison south of Brussels after armed accomplices landed there in a hijacked helicopter.
The helicopter was immediately crowded by other prisoners and crashed. Benallal and his cohorts then seized two prison warders as hostages and fled in a car parked nearby. He was recaptured in the Netherlands three days later.
Earlier the same year, Frenchman Erik Ferdinand escaped in a hijacked helicopter from Lantin prison near Liege. He was arrested several weeks later in Italy.