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Legend of Balkan 'Pink Panther' jewel thieves grows

CETINJE, Montenegro - 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 of 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 5 1/2 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.

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.

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