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Manhunt widens for three Quebec inmates who escaped using helicopter

The prison yard of the Orsainville Detention Centre near Quebec City is shown on Saturday June 7, 2014. Quebec Provincial Police say three inmates have escaped from the Orsainville Detention Centre using a helicopter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon.

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The prison yard of the Orsainville Detention Centre near Quebec City is shown on Saturday June 7, 2014. Quebec Provincial Police say three inmates have escaped from the Orsainville Detention Centre using a helicopter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon.

MONTREAL - The search widened Sunday for three Quebec inmates facing murder charges who used a helicopter to make a brazen escape from jail a day earlier.

Authorities were put on alert across the province, in the rest of Canada, and in the United States, said Quebec provincial police.

But police offered few details on the manhunt, for fear the escapees could be monitoring media reports.

"We have many, many officers who are scattering all the areas possible," said Sgt. Gregory Gomez.

"Investigators are, of course, checking every lead."

It's the second helicopter jailbreak in the province in just over a year.

Gomez wouldn't say whether the helicopter had been located or whether they had an idea of where the men had headed.

The escapees were identified as Yves Denis, 35, Denis Lefebvre, 53, and Serge Pomerleau, 49.

The men fled from the Orsainville Detention Centre barbed wire in suburban Quebec City around 7:45 p.m. on Saturday with the help of a green-coloured helicopter.

The facility is lined with a series of fences and barbed wire, and features a watch post.

The chopper landed in a courtyard of the detention centre then quickly took off again heading west, perhaps toward Trois-Rivieres or Montreal, police said.

The three men were originally arrested on drug trafficking and gangsterism charges in 2010, according to police.

Denis is also facing first-degree murder charges, while Lefebvre and Pomerleau are facing charges of murder and conspiracy to murder, according to the Quebec provincial police website.

As the search continued Sunday, police added the escapees to the list of Quebec's 10 most wanted.

The status of the men's cases in the court system was not immediately clear. Provincial jails in Canada normally house people awaiting trial or those sentenced to offences of two years or less behind bars.

Police said the men were swept up in a major 2010 police operation called Operation Ecrevisse (Project Crayfish), aimed at bringing down a drug trafficking ring in northwestern Quebec.

During the raid, police made 51 arrests and seized $905,000 and 2 kilograms of cocaine, along with other drugs, police said. They also seized a plane and a helicopter.

Police released photos of the three men on social media and appealed to the public for help, but warned anyone who spotted them not to approach and immediately contact police.

Audrey-Anne Bilodeau, another police spokeswoman, said Saturday police were working with surrounding airports and Quebec's Valcartier military base to help track down the chopper.

The Orsainville Detention Centre, about 10 kilometres from the centre of Quebec City, can hold up to 710 offenders.

In 2010, it was the scene of a fire and a violent skirmish that ended with two inmates dead and another six rushed to hospital.

It was also the scene of a riot in February 2008, which was apparently triggered by a smoking ban at the facility.

Saturday's helicopter escape had similarities to another bold jailbreak.

Two inmates made a similar break from a St-Jerome, Que., prison in March 2013.

A helicopter pilot was forced at gunpoint to fly to the prison on a Sunday afternoon.

Two inmates at the facility, which is about 60 kilometres from Montreal, climbed a rope ladder into the hovering helicopter and fled.

The two escapees and the two men accused of hijacking the chopper were picked up by police in Mont-Tremblant, about 85 kilometres away, within a few hours of the escape.

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