Trio escape as armed gang hijacks prison van

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The Independent Online

Detectives warned the public not to approach two "extremely dangerous" gunmen today after the armed hold-up of a prison van.

Three prisoners escaped in the break-out after the driver of a Securicor van taking 10 prisoners to court was stopped at gunpoint and shot in the leg.

Another security man was pistol-whipped in the hold-up, outside Inner London Crown Court, south London. One of the attackers was dressed as a postman and was carrying a Royal Mail bag.

Detective Superintendent Mick Allen of the Serious Crime Directorate at New Scotland Yard appealed to anyone who saw this "audacious" crime to come forward but warned: "I must stress they are extremely dangerous. We do not wish anybody to attempt to approach them."

Noel Cunningham and Clifford Hobbs - who were due in court on charges of conspiracy to steal £1.25 million from a Securicor vehicle - escaped in the incident.

A third man - Tony Peters, who was going to court in connection with a different crime - also escaped but later gave himself up to police. He had been due to face a charge of robbery.

Peters, 41, Cunningham, 41, and Hobbs, 43, were being driven into court when the van came under attack.

A spokesman for the Prison Service said: "The driver was threatened by a man with a shotgun who proceeded to shoot the driver in the knee through the door of the van. The other security staff on board, the passenger, was pistol-whipped.

"The driver got out of the vehicle and there followed an escape from the back of the van by three prisoners."

The driver of the prison van and his colleague were taken to nearby St Thomas' Hospital for treatment.

There were seven other prisoners in the van who did not try to escape during the raid.

"They were taken into the crown court for their own safety," the spokesman added.

Cunningham, of Greenland Quay, Rotherhithe, south east London, and Hobbs, who lived nearby in Hull Close, Stave Dock, were both appearing on charges of theft and conspiracy.

They were due to appear in court with two other men, one of whom had been on bail.

The fourth defendant had been on his way to court in another van from another prison, Swaleside in Kent, which was alerted about the escape and turned back.

The three escapees had been listed to appear at plea and directions hearings in Court 10 before Judge Colin Smith QC.

Deputy court manager Sue Adams said they were among 10 prisoners being driven from Brixton prison to the court in a Securicor van.

Miss Adams said the incident had left other prisoners on the van "distraught" and led to the adjournment of all Inner London's custody cases listed for today.

She added: "This incident follows another escape we had quite recently at this court although on that occasion nobody was injured."

On that occasion Kevin Smith, who had just been sentenced for a series of armed robberies, slipped his handcuffs as he was being escorted to a prison van by a dock officer, and ran off.

"His escape is still being investigated, but it is right to say he had assistance," she said.

An investigation has been launched by the Prison Service and Securicor into today's escape.

One witness, Trudy Hagan, 34, was in the nearby Social Security office in Newington Causeway shortly after 9am when she heard "a lot of commotion".

She said: "I looked out of the window and I saw a prison van shaking and I heard someone shouting, 'Open the door, open the door'.

"I saw somebody come round the front. He was dressed as a Post Office man. I heard two shots fired and heard lots more shouting, 'Open the door', and also sirens were in the background."

Ms Hagan, who lives in nearby Elephant and Castle, added: "Then I saw four men run off in different directions."

Another witness, who did not wish to be named, said he was in the nearby drug centre on Newington Causeway when he heard two shots being fired.

He said: "I heard a ruckus, some people screaming. And then two shots went off and then there was a silence. Then I saw some geezers running away and that was it."

It is not yet known how many men were in the armed gang or for how long the prisoners were on remand.

Meanwhile, the Securicor van remained parked in Avonmouth Road and was cordoned off.

A number of police officers stood guard and a small crowd of onlookers were gathered on the corner of the street with Newington Causeway.