LAST Wednesday, two days before he was due to return from Brighton to his home in Slovenia, 16-year-old Gregor Bajraktarevic was chased by two local youths from the Pavilion Gardens to the gates of his language school in North Street.

When he refused to hand over his wallet they punched him in the face, leaving him with a split lip, a bloodied nose and a pair of broken glasses.

This is his first visit to the United Kingdom. 'I did not expect this,' he says. 'In Ljubljana you might find some pickpockets or some thieves. But it is very rare to be attacked in this way. I was very frightened.'

The friend with whom Gregor had been sharing his accommodation was also attacked last week and suffered minor injuries. A man has been charged with threatening behaviour, robbery and actual bodily harm.

Brighton's depressed economy benefits by about pounds 5m a year from the foreign students who flock to this louche and lively town to learn English. But between 1 April (when most of the 14 language schools opened for the summer) and 13 June there were more than 50 attacks on foreign students in the Brighton area. Students, some only 13 and on their first trip away from home, have been verbally abused, mugged and beaten up in a wave of assaults. The attacks, which have happened during the day as well as late at night, and in all areas of the town, appear to be linked only by the fact that each victim was a foreign student.

The viciousness and frequency of the assaults prompted Brighton police to launch a special operation in June. Uniformed officers and plain-clothed detectives patrolled key points in the town at which foreign students were known to congregate, while closed-circuit cameras were installed at these points so that they could be observed from Brighton police station.

The first cases arising from the initiative, codenamed Operation Beech, are due to be heard shortly by magistrates. In one incident a youth is alleged to have wrapped a wooden truncheon around a foreign student's neck in an attempt to persuade him to part with the contents of his wallet, no more than pounds 10.

'We are very happy with Beech so far,' says Det Ch Insp Dave Brown, of Brighton CID. 'The violence just had to stop. We were prepared to devote considerable resources, manpower and overtime payments to what was becoming a serious problem in this town. We believe these students deserve our protection - imagine how we would feel if our children visited France or Italy and became the victims of attacks of this kind. If we feel a conviction will result, we will be prepared to fly witnesses back from abroad at our expense.'

Last year Andrew Collins, unemployed, of Hazelwood Avenue, Eastbourne, was jailed for three years for robbing two foreign students at knifepoint. Witnesses were flown from Sweden and Italy to give evidence at Lewes Crown Court.

Robbery appears to be the motive behind most attacks - the students are perceived as being wealthy. The assailants sometimes exploit the navety of their victims: a number of students have lost their wallets to thieves who simply asked if they could have a look at them. But most disturbing are the apparently motiveless attacks.

Three weeks ago, 16-year-old Anna Aires Pereira, a student from Lisbon, was sitting on a bench in the centre of Brighton. It was her first day in the town. She had enrolled in a four-week course in English at EF, the town's largest language school. 'I was just sitting, waiting for a friend. And a girl came up to me and hit me in the face. I think she was a little drunk. I haven't told anyone what happened because I don't want to have trouble with the police.'

The reluctance of students like Anna to report incidents suggests that the problem may be even more serious than it seems.

'Many local yobs regard the students as easy meat,' says Kenneth Chapman, principal of Eurocentre, the school Gregor was attending when he was attacked. 'They are convinced they won't report the crimes, and that the police will have problems bringing the witnesses back.'

The Palace Pier in Brighton is often the scene of trouble. 'It's worse this year than ever,' says Lindsay Dixon, pier manager. 'We see it all the time. A group of local youths will pick on one or two language students. They'll take their money and then disappear on to the front. By the time our security people get there, they'll have run off. I'm glad the police are taking the attacks seriously, but it is a case of too little and too late.'

Last weekend the pier had less than its normal complement of language students, since many had left Brighton and gone home. Yet Churchill Square, a grim modern shopping centre in the centre of town, worth a visit only because all the buses stop there, was still a centre of activity, with students waiting en masse for a bus to take them to a pop festival in a park just outside town. While the students joked and giggled, giving each other piggybacks across the drab concrete square, a group of youthful Brightonians, squat, grubby, sullen and sour-faced, looked on.

Brighton suffers an unemployment rate of almost 12 per cent, and what jobs the town can offer tend to be low-paid and seasonal, in hotels, restaurants and cafes. Many estates are ravaged by drug addiction, a symptom of the criminality that lurks beneath the town's crumbling Regency facade.

By contrast, the students who come to Brighton from Europe are well-fed, well-dressed and well-heeled. Most will have had their tuition and accommodation fees - sometimes as much as pounds 2,500 for a full term - paid by middle-class parents or benign and enlightened employers.

'I'm sure that jealousy has been behind many of these attacks,' says Andrew Heep, regional director of EF. 'The local lads will look at the students and envy their possessions, envy their clothes. But above all they will envy them for the confidence they have to travel to a foreign country.'

Ann Horridge, another EF manager, says: 'We often organise barbecues on the beach. Sometimes we have a thousand foreign students singing and dancing and over at the back there's a group of local lads looking on in silence. I'm not surprised they feel a bit left out.'

The camaraderie displayed by many of the foreign students is in itself enough to irk some local people, not just those intent on sending them back to the Continent with a smack in the mouth as a souvenir. As they progress around the town, the groups of students have an unfortunate habit of blocking pavements, swamping bus queues - 'thirty-nine to Preston Park please' - and taking over shops.

Sometimes students are the perpetrators instead of the victims of crime. A section of a leaflet called Welcome to Sussex, published by the local police and handed out to foreign students, reflects the disquiet felt by many shopkeepers. 'Every year some students disgrace themselves, their parents and their country by stealing, particularly from shops. Stealing anything is a serious crime . . .'

'Light-fingered? That's putting it mildly,' says John Hogg, manager of Virgin Records. 'It starts in April when they arrive and it finishes in September when they go home. Most of them have got our security system sussed. I've never seen anything like it.'

Fionbarr Kelly, a spokesmen for the Association of Recognised English Language Schools, says that many of the problems experienced in the town and elsewhere on the south coast - in Eastbourne in June, 13 Italian teenagers went on the rampage, causing over pounds 2,000-worth of damage - are caused by students who are attending unrecognised schools.

'In the summer we do get the cowboys in Brighton who fly in large groups of students, just to make money. Often they are not properly supervised and difficulties can result. But students who attend recognised schools are warned about the correct way to behave and kept under careful control. It is outrageous that shopkeepers and other people in Brighton should criticise the

students. They forget just how important they are to the local economy.'

While the police say that xenophobia is not at the heart of the attacks, many visitors are not convinced. 'I have been to England twice now and I do not think that British people like foreigners,' says 18-year-old Tiago Rodrigues, from Lisbon. 'When you come to our country you are made very welcome. You would never be beaten up.'

Stephan Leonhardt, from Munich, is more philosophical: 'I am afraid that I expected this from Brighton. I have the record Quadrophenia and I know that Brighton can be a very rough place.'

Gradually news of the assaults in Brighton and elsewhere is beginning to filter across the Channel. The students themselves often prefer to keep quiet, but reports of the most outrageous attacks are beginning to appear in the Continental press. Parents are becoming concerned and the schools could lose business.

Evana Steinocher, whose teenage son was beaten up in a Sussex park in daylight, said from her home in Paris: 'I was shocked, but then I had heard about your hooligans. My son is all right but I am worried about sending him back. It all sounds a little like A Clockwork Orange.'

(Photographs omitted)