`Rochdale, the last place for US-style shooting'

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AS THE silver BMW roared down the road, pursued by police, the front-seat passenger leant from his window repeatedly and shot at bystanders with an assault rifle.

"I heard a helicopter overhead and went out to see what was happening," said Anthony Hodgson, who watched the gunmen tear past with a police convoy 200 yards behind, and people in the street diving for cover. "A BMW went by at about 90mph, followed by the first police car. The BMW went round the corner and I couldn't see it any more then a lot more police vehicles arrived."

Moments later, the police rammed the hijacked vehicle off the road and the two occupants jumped from the car, firing at the police who had surrounded them. Dumping the woman owner of the car they had taken as hostage, the two men tried, unsuccessfully, to escape on foot.

The drama that ended in the centre of Rochdale yesterday afternoon and resulted in the shooting of five bystanders, had begun an hour earlier at Thornton Services at Garstang on the M6 close to Lancaster.

Police tried to question the occupants of a red Rover. The car sped off - the Lancashire officers in high-speed pursuit.

With the force's helicopter overhead, the chase headed south towards Manchester, with the police radio-ing their colleagues in the Greater Manchester force for assistance.

In an attempt to shake off their pursuers, the men in the car drove into Horwich, near Bolton. They dumped the Rover and hijacked a BMW saloon being driven by a 27-year-old woman.

They are said to have fired their weapons into the air before forcing the woman into the back seat and setting off in the direction of Rochdale.

"There were two marked police Range Rovers going at high speed, followed by other unmarked cars with flashing lights," said Wendy Albison, 60, a hairdresser in the village of Bamford. "A helicopter was buzzing around overhead.

"One of the cars pulled up at a bus stop and then headed back in the direction from which it had come."

By this stage, as they approached Rochdale, the gunmen were apparently firing indiscriminately at bystanders.

A 75-year-old man waiting at a bus stop in Edenfield Road was shot in the leg as the car sped past.

"I heard some echoing noises - at first I didn't think they were gunshots," said a local bookmaker. "I went outside and I saw a man at the bus stop lying there and someone was helping him.

"He had been shot in the leg. I helped him and kept a wet towel pressed on his leg until a doctor came out of a surgery."

The incident happened outside the home of the mother-in-law of the pop singer Lisa Stansfield. Jane Devaney said: "You hear about these things happening in America but you don't expect it to happen on your own doorstep," she said.

The gunmen sped on, leaving mayhem and agony in their wake. It is believed that as they passed another bus stop one of them leant out and fired again - hitting more people. Among the injured was an elderly woman.

With a convoy of police vehicles in pursuit, the gunmen headed towards the centre of Rochdale, speeding down Manchester Road. As they sped past a cyclist, one of the men again fired from the window, hitting him in the thigh.

Outside Rochdale Town Hall, the gunmen came to a dead-end and were forced to turn around. They sped back along the way they had come, pursued by four police Range Rovers. It was at this point that the police managed to ram the vehicle into a lamp-post.

The two men leapt from the vehicle, firing their guns.

Bill Shepherd, 57, a fork-lift truck driver at a nearby factory unit, said: "I was pulling out of work when I saw at least 10 police cars come down. It was just like a "Rambo" film.

"The next thing, there were a couple of gunshots and I saw the police had a man pinned to the road. I think the police had rammed the car.

"I heard three shots but I couldn't say where they came from. Then I saw another man pinned to the ground. The police asked me to pull my truck across the road to stop other cars coming down."