Axe-wielding robbers stage daring heist in Paris luxury watch store

About 15 men, some of them wielding axes and sledgehammers, on Friday burst into a luxury watch store in the heart of Paris in broad daylight and made off with a haul worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

Shortly before lunch, two well-dressed men entered the Vacheron Constantin store near the posh Place Vendome, where several top-end jewellers are located, and let in a third man who was armed.

Six others, wearing hoods and armed with sledgehammers and axes, then followed inside, police said.

They smashed the shop windows and left with 20 watches with hefty price tags.

A single watch crafted by the Swiss luxury watch maker can sell for hundreds of thousands of euros. Police said the goods stolen were "of a very significant amount."

Around six accomplices outside the showroom, just metres (feet) away from France's justice ministry, used smoke grenades to allow those inside to make a speedy escape, police said.

They fled on foot.

Two of the men were arrested in the area and two sledgehammers and an axe were found nearby, police said. The men were placed in custody and were from eastern Europe.

Local police commissioner Francis Vincenti said the raid bore "witness to a new modus operandi" given the number of men involved and the fact that they could make a getaway in an area teeming with surveillance cameras.

France has been hit by a series of high-profile jewellery heists this year, including several in the posh Riviera resort town of Cannes.

In a spectacular robbery, jewel thieves made off with baubles worth $1.4 million due to be loaned to movie stars at the Cannes film festival in May.

Another theft during the festival saw robbers make off with a diamond necklace with an estimated value of $1.9 million.

And early last month, four men rammed their car into an upmarket jewellery store near Place Vendome, making off with a two-million-euro ($2.6-million) booty.

The spurt in crime has spawned an unprecedented phenomenon: a Facebook page supporting a French jeweller who shot dead a teenage robber in September has drawn 1.6 million "likes."

Stephan Turk's action has divided France, with supporters arguing for the right to self-defence amid a general climate of insecurity, while critics condemn the use of violence and vigilantism.

In December 2008, three men emptied almost all of the stock of gems from the Harry Winston jewellery store in Paris. In 2009, police said they had recovered 80 percent of the haul.