Police arrest 26 in hunt for €85m robbers

Police in France have made 26 arrests and recovered a series of stolen rings, necklaces and watches as part of an investigation into last year's spectacular multimillion-pound robbery at the luxury Paris jewellers, Harry Winston.

The daring heist last December saw a group of robbers, some dressed as women and wearing wigs, steal almost every piece of jewellery on display in the chic boutique. They stuffed diamond rings, necklaces and luxury watches into bags as well as emptying two backdoor storage cases before getting away within minutes. Items worth about €85m were stolen – the biggest jewellery robbery ever in France, and one of the world's biggest gem heists.

It emerged last night that investigators had been monitoring suspects in and around Paris in recent months. On Sunday, they learnt that some foreign nationals were due to arrive to collect some of the stolen jewels to sell them on. The police swooped and made arrests on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

There are several women among the suspects, who are aged between 22 and 67. Police said 26 people, including a security guard at the jewellery shop and several known gangsters, had been placed under investigation.

They are accused of having taken part in the raid or the preparations for it, or of having helped sell the jewels. Police also recovered weapons, as well as €250,000 in cash.

Originally, members of the Pink ­Panthers gang that operates out of the Balkans, and which has been involved in other high-profile jewel thefts, were suspects, but they appear to have been ruled out, according to police.

The robbery, carried out in daylight a few weeks before Christmas, had led police to suspect experienced professionals and "real pros". The gang appeared to have a detailed knowledge of the boutique's lay-out, knew the location of supposedly top-secret storage boxes, and referred to staff by their first names.

The American jewellery boutique on Paris's chic Avenue Montaigne has been the target of previous heists. In October 2007, armed robbers made off with jewels worth more than €10m.

The late actor Richard Burton bought jewels from the store for his wife Elizabeth Taylor; the late shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis also bought an engagement ring there for the former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

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