Redoine Faid was helped by three heavily-armed men with assault rifles.The notorious gangster is on the run after escaping by helicopter from a prison in the Paris region.
Two gunmen in balaclavas used smoke bombs and angle-grinders to break into the visitors’ room where Faid was talking to his brother.
A third man in the prison courtyard guarded the helicopter and its pilot – a flying instructor whom the men had taken hostage.
The helicopter flew to the nearby Gonesse area, where it was found by local police.
Redoine Faid, 46, has been serving a 25-year sentence for a failed robbery during which a police officer was killed.
France’s Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, who travelled to the Sud-Francilien prison in Réau on Sunday evening, called it “a spectacular escape”.
“It was an extremely well-prepared commando unit that may have used drones to survey the area beforehand,” she said.
The prison courtyard where the helicopter landed was the only area not protected by anti-aircraft netting. Prison union representative Martial Delabroye said that was because inmates do not use it, “except to leave the prison”.
Nobody was injured during the jailbreak, which happened at around 11:20 (09:20 GMT) on Sunday.
The captured pilot was released, and later taken to hospital suffering from shock.
Redoine Faid’s accomplices had taken the flying instructor hostage at a small flying club in Fontenay-Trésigny, where he was waiting for a student, and ordered him to fly to the prison.
Redoine Faid got out of the helicopter and into a black Renault Megane which was seen heading for the A1 motorway. That getaway car was later found burnt out at a shopping centre car park in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb.
Early on Sunday afternoon, the fugitive was said to have swapped to a white van.