Manchester launches gangland manhunt after prison van raid

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Police were still searching last night for two defendants in a long-running violent intimidation trial after they were freed from a secure van on their way to court by an armed gang during the morning rush hour.

Rush hour raid: click here to download graphic (93k)

The van carrying Kirk Bradley and Anthony Downes was rammed by a black Saab estate minutes after leaving HMP Manchester on its way to Liverpool Crown Court.

A jury was preparing to consider its verdict in the trial, in which the escaped prisoners are accused, along with four others, of plotting a two-year campaign of violence involving guns and grenades against their underworld rivals in Merseyside.

Several men dressed in dark clothing, wearing balaclavas and wielding a sledgehammer hit the G4S driver on the head before forcing him to open the van and release the two prisoners.

The gang then drove off at high speed, abandoning their getaway car a mile away in Salford. It is believed they then transferred to a white Transit van. The G4S driver was taken to hospital but his injuries are not thought to be serious.

During the two-month trial, the prosecution claimed that Bradley and Downes, both aged 25, were involved in a feud which allegedly resulted in "enemies" being shot in the legs and their homes being "indiscriminately" targeted with live ammunition and explosives. One man was so badly injured after being shot that he had to have a leg amputated, the court heard.

In evidence Downes, who was serving a prison sentence for conspiring to rob at the time, described how he overheard a cellmate orchestrating a foiled attack which resulted in a military grenade being dumped outside the Southport home of Liverpool FC manager Kenny Dalglish.

Downes admitted he was in constant mobile phone contact with the outside world and his group of co-defendants while in prison. The jury also heard how Bradley was secretly recorded after being arrested by Dutch police in 2009 for possession of a loaded Smith & Wesson handgun.

He denied owning the revolver, but recorded phone calls later revealed that he had threatened to throw grenades at the homes of the mothers of people he had fallen out with.

Both Downes, of no fixed address, and Bradley, of Stockbridge Village, Merseyside, deny conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to commit criminal damage with intent to endanger life.

Yesterday's raid is the third break-out from a security van in the past 15 months in the North West. In May this year, three prisoners climbed out through skylights as they were being taken from HMP Garth in Lancashire to prisons on Merseyside. All three were eventually recaptured.

A year earlier Richard Smith, 29, who was charged with conspiracy to commit arson, was sprung from a prison van outside Salford Magistrates' Court. He was arrested in Alicante, Spain, and was extradited back to the UK last November.

Yesterday's raid caused traffic chaos around Manchester city centre.