Crime gangs 'targeting rural areas': Audacious raid on village and double killing reinforce claims that more funds are needed for intelligence network

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RURAL towns and villages are becoming the new target for organised crime, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, warned yesterday.

Speaking in the aftermath of a raid in which a gang took over the remote town of Rothbury, which lies in his constituency, before stealing pounds 15,000 from a post office, Mr Beith called for increased policing in isolated areas.

'I've been extremely concerned for a long time at how vulnerable villages like Rothbury are to organised crime. Tighter security in city areas seems to be encouraging criminals to head for rural areas with much lower police cover,' he said.

Detective Inspector John Hope, of Northumbria police, who is leading the investigation into the Rothbury raid, said the incident involved a new level of boldness and sophistication. 'It is an absolutely new dimension, where people are prepared to commit crime and go to any lengths. They effectively cut off the whole village for a period of about two-and-a-half hours while committing the offence.'

Last night, officers were still hunting the five men who cut telephone lines and threatened some of the 2,000 residents with crowbars during the raid early on Monday. Dressed in camouflage clothing and ski masks, the gang blocked a main street with a stolen council van and told people looking out of their windows to go back to bed. They forced their way into the Post Office and fled in the van with the safe containing pounds 15,000 in cash, stamps and pension books. The van has since been recovered.

Mr Beith said he had raised the need for greater police cover in Rothbury last year after a ram raid on a village shop. 'A lot of attention is being given to crime in the cities, but the authorities must face up to the fact that it is these rural areas which are increasingly the victim of urban criminals,' he said.

'People are extremely worried about the quite brazen way in which criminals will do things when they know they will seen by the public, but not by police in sufficient numbers to do anything about them.'

Det Insp Hope believed that improved roads meant easier access to rural areas and agreed that police initiatives in cities had forced criminals to switch attention to vulnerable towns and villages.

Home Office figures last April showed that rural crime was on the increase. In Cheshire, North Yorkshire, Warwickshire and Bedfordshire burglaries rose by well over 20 per cent, more than three times the overall national rate. Last week a survey revealed that car thieves are increasingly targeting rural areas, where residents are less likely to lock cars or fit security alarms.

On Monday night, a family were held at gunpoint as robbers ransacked their isolated home near Ringwood, in Hampshire. They tied up a woman, her three children and her 88-year-old mother-in-law, beat the woman's husband when he returned and fled with pounds 10,000 in cash and jewellery.

Det Insp Hope argued that criminals were prepared to take risks because 'they realise that the chances of being caught and convicted are so low. The criminal justice system is completely failing us, not just the police, but the whole community. It is totally balanced in favour of the criminal. It is a national disease where people are prepared to go to any sort of length.'