Women steer clear of bars and nightspots in the town where fear has taken over

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, they would have responded with a witty retort to the overture but last night they were taking no chances.

Like most female revellers who had braved the clubs and pubs of Northampton this week, the two friends were nervous of any attention from strangers. With good reason. A gang rapists of rapists has been terrorising women in the town. Five lone women have been attacked in the early hours of the morning - the youngest aged 15.

Three were raped but two, including the 15-year-old, managed to escape from the men, who are thought to work in unison to abduct their victims, sometimes bundling them into cars. The main suspects are three or more tall, black men with South African accents who, for some attacks, have driven a blue BMW car and a light-coloured Fiat Punto.

Last night, Ms Jones, 19, and Ms Palmer, 19, both A-level students, had fought their fear by visiting town for a few cocktails, but did not feel confident enough to stay for long.

"We're going to a village pub outside the town after this drink," said Ms Palmer, adding: "The worst thing is that we could know these men, we could have spoken to them at college. I was doing a pub crawl of the town when one of the rapes happened. It could have been any one of us.

"It's a big deal when something like this happens in Northampton. I even felt scared waiting for Sophie at the bus station when it was still daylight."

Two hundred posters have been pasted around the town's pubs and clubs urging women to be vigilant and the Northamptonshire Police force is offering a £1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

Superintendent Ray Campbell, head of community policing at Northamptonshire Police, said women should not be unduly panicked but they should "assess their daily routes", avoiding short cuts, underpasses, alleyways and badly lit areas, as well as organising lifts home and remaining together in groups or in pairs.

But many had decided it was safer to stay away from town altogether, where women were conspicuously absent from the usually bustling bars and clubs along Bridge Street and Abingdon Road, in the heart of the town.

Hayley Reeve, 19, a bartender in one of the town's biggest pubs, said she had noticed an overwhelming lack of female drinkers this week. At her bar, the female staff have been asked to share lifts home or be escorted by male staff members after an evening shift, which can end at 1am.

"Last night, I looked out and noticed there were so many more men than women in the bar. Women just aren't turning up. I think everyone feels constantly intimidated. I'm always careful about my safety but even I've walked to the taxi rank on my own at times or ahead of my group of friends," she said.

Many of those who had decided to go out for a few drinks had taken great pains to ensure they are not alone at any point.

Gemma Darby's two friends, Fiona Smith and Holly Lomas, left their drinks to walk her to her car, which was parked near by. "They've had to leave their drinks half drunk to walk me 50 yards to my car," she said.

"I'm angry about that. I'm angry that these men have got us so worried. I'm not going to let them beat me. I'm still going to go out and get drunk, but will just make sure none of us are ever on our own."

Businesses have employed extra security guards to help walk women to their cars and bus stops, even before dark.

In the beer garden of a pub in Bridge Street, Melissa Adams 31, and Siobhan McLaren, 30, who work for the National Grid and relocated to Northampton less than six months ago, said they had talked of little else but their apprehension - and anger - at the attacks, which have discouraged them from walking in town alone even in daytime.

"I have two daughters and I'm a single parent and I feel nervous in our house at night. I can't sleep with this going on," said Ms McLaren.

Ms Adams, a gas connections manager in a company with 900 employees, said: "We've taken on extra security staff to escort female staff to bus stops, car parks and the smoking shed, so women don't even go for a cigarette break on their own now."

While she was not as fearful of her own safety - her husband has offered to drive her everywhere - she was deeply concerned for younger women.

She said: "I have seen young girls out at night, dressed up to the nines and walking on their own sometimes. I really worry for them. None of us should be living in fear like this."