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Pink Panthers, elusive jewel thieves who rob but never kill, on way to becoming legend

CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) — Their nickname comes straight from Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau, but there's nothing bumbling about them.

In heists from London to Paris to Tokyo, the crime ring that Interpol calls the Pink Panthers is thought to have netted a quarter billion dollars in jewelry and luxury watches. Many of its members are said to be from this tiny Balkan country of 600,000 people.

The legend started seven years ago in a jar of face cream.

Milan Jovetic was among a group that robbed the Graff store on London's exclusive New Bond Street of $30 million worth of diamonds. He was caught a couple days later and Scotland Yard found a $1 million diamond ring that was purportedly his share of the job.

It was stashed in his girlfriend's face-cream jar, the same hiding place used by the thief in "The Pink Panther," the 1963 movie that introduced the world to the famously inept Inspector Clouseau.

British newspapers dubbed the robbers the Pink Panthers, and as more robberies followed, enough of a pattern emerged for Interpol to set up "Project Pink Panthers."

"We are working on 190 cases in 27 countries on four continents, a big investigation," said Julia Viedma, director of Interpol's operations.

In court, Jovetic claimed he had only arranged logistics and was paid with the diamond ring. He was sentenced to 5½ years in prison of which he served four. Now he's back in this small Montenegrin valley town, a handsome 30-year-old with gelled black hair who is something of a celebrity.

Pushing his baby daughter in a stroller down a dusty street, he is asked if he is indeed Jovetic the Panther he grins and replies: "Do I look that way to you?"

But when asked about the crime ring, he snarls "You don't have the kind of money for me to talk," and walks away.

Cetinje, a poor town of 15,000, has produced many of those arrested on suspicion of Pink Panther associations, Interpol says. Impoverished by the wars that broke up Yugoslavia, Cetinje has few exports besides young, jobless men, many of whom hang out at a cafe owned by Jovetic.

A notion seems to have taken root here that the Pink Panthers are Robin Hood types, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But other than some BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes parked outside certain cafes frequented by the underworld, there is no indication of any wealth trickling down.

A man who identifies himself only as Zoran sips espresso at a sidewalk cafe and asks for understanding for the Panthers: "They killed no one. They just wanted to escape this godforsaken place."

Indeed, though the robbers often are armed, they don't shoot at anyone.

Interpol officials are careful not to link every spectacular jewel robbery in the world to the Pink Panthers. It only enhances their allure, says one official, requesting anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak to the media.

But the officials believe Pink Panthers have been behind some 150 robberies since the late 1990s. They say about 25 arrests have been made in recent years and 400 people are being investigated as members or accomplices, but that the core group numbers about 40.

Those arrested observe a code of silence that confounds attempts to break up the gang.

"There is no doubt that these men and a few women ... mostly come from Montenegro and Serbia," said Dejan Anastasijevic, a reporter from Serbia who investigates Balkan crime syndicates and who had to flee to Belgium after escaping a grenade explosion.

"We have no idea who hires these people, whether it's the Italian, Russian or Japanese mafia, or someone else," he said.

The robbery tactics are simple, Interpol officials say. A well-dressed man enters a shop and points his gun at a clerk. A few other masked individuals follow carrying hammers and steel bars. They smash jewelry casings and windows and are gone in minutes, fleeing in stolen cars.

In March, 2004, in what was then Japan's biggest jewelry heist, two bewigged robbers burst into an upscale Tokyo store, immobilized a clerk with pepper spray, and nabbed treasures including a $27 million diamond necklace.

Last December, three Pink Panthers, two men and a woman, were convicted by a Serbian court for stealing $31.5 million worth of jewels, including the 125-carat necklace, two diamond earrings and seven diamond rings.

Those jewels, as is often the case in these robberies, were never found, raising the suspicion that the gang is contracted for robberies by people with the resources to fence the stolen gems.

Harry Levy, vice president of the London Diamond Bourse, said dealers in London, Paris, or New York can spot high-profile stolen diamonds, but "It is easy to alter the weight and the shape by re-cutting or reshaping the stone ... making them easy to sell in such places as Eastern Europe or Asia, which have less regulation."

Typical was a heist in Dubai in April 2007.

Two cars drove into a lobby of the Wafi shopping mall. One backed through a jewelry store window. Three masked men drove off with about $3.5 million worth of jewels. The entire scene was filmed on a bystander's cell phone and posted on YouTube. Dubai police said they identified eight suspects as Pink Panthers, which led to some of them being arrested on Interpol arrest warrants, while others are still on the run.

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Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna and Andrew Khouri in London contributed to this report.