A gang of thieves armed with axes burst into the Ritz Hotel in central Paris, smashed their way into a set of jewelery display cases and stole at least 4 million euros ($4.8 million) worth of gems, police said.
Hooded men entered the lobby of the landmark building from the rear entrance at around 6.30 p.m. local time (12.30 p.m. ET) Wednesday and made straight for the jewelery cases on the ground floor.
Terrified guests were forced to take cover as shots rang out, witnesses said.
It was an audacious heist: France’s Ministry of Justice is located next door to the opulent five-star hotel on the Place Vendome and a handful of high-end boutiques can be found nearby.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb praised the police respsone. “Armed robbery at the Ritz: Three suspects already arrested by officers from the 2nd arrondissement. Their calm, their professionalism and their swift response is a credit to the Police,” he posted on Twitter.
‘He had an ax in his hand’
Niki Lazar, a 21-year-old woman from Chicago, told CNN that she was having a drink with her parents in the Ritz’s Hemingway Bar when she saw a man wearing a ski mask run into the hotel.
“(He) ran right from the back door of the bar to the front, right past my father. He had an ax in his hand,” she said. “Immediately the bartender closed and locked the door and (corralled) everyone to the back kitchen area of the bar.”
Lazar said “at least 10 rounds of gunfire” rang out she took cover behind the bar, where she and other patrons remained hidden for several minutes. She said she later saw one of the bartenders being tended to by a paramedic.
The Ritz Hotel is in Place Vendôme, not far from popular landmarks such as the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries.
Hotel security managed to trigger an automatic locking system during the heist, locking three of the robbers inside, Jean-François Legaret, the mayor of Paris’ 1st district, told CNN on Thursday.
“I would say that this was a very violent, armed attack by a large well-organized and professional gang. They are people who are already known by the police services,” Legaret said.
Police officers then entered the hotel from the back and were able to arrest the three men before they left the building. A Paris Prefecture spokesperson saying that they fired at the suspects with “Taser-type guns.” The three suspects were in their twenties.
The two other men escaped with the jewels, French police told CNN. Authorities couldn’t confirm if they got away with everything that they attempted to steal.
The Prefecture said one man appeared to be waiting for them at an exit, and that he and another suspect escaped on scooter via rue Cambon. The scooter hit a passerby, who was not hospitalized.
Wine merchant Edouard Margain posted a photo of the crime scene that he took from his office on social media.
“Just saw a guy arrested while trying to take the street on the wrong way on a scooter, then dozens of cops in the street and medicals in just a few minutes after,” Margain told CNN.
The robbery was the second major jewel heist in a major European city in a week.
Last week thieves made a daytime heist of valuable jewels from the Qatari royal collection at an exhibition in Venice, Italy. Local officials said the jewels were of “indisputably elevated value.”
That robbery occurred at the Doge’s Palace, a popular tourist spot in Venice, where the selection of Indian jewelry was on display to the public. One suspect may have acted as a lookout while the other grabbed the jewels from a display case, police said.
The stolen items included a pair of earrings and a brooch made of diamonds, gold and platinum.
And in October 2016, Kim Kardashian West was robbed at gunpoint inside her room at a luxury private mansion in Paris by a gang of men disguised as police officers. They made off with an estimated $10 million in cash and jewelry.
CNN’s Jim Bitterman and Frank Andrews reported from Paris; James Gray, Richard Allen Greene, Henrik Pettersson and Lauren Said-Moorhouse reported from London. CNN’s Amanda Jackson also contributed to this report.