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Bandits show off British manners

Out here in the former colonies, the sound of the Queen's English normally elicits either snobbish fascination or gentle mirth. But not in the opulent Maryland suburbs on Washington's northwestern fringe, thanks to a pistol- wielding, black-clad twosome known as the "British bandits".

In the last six weeks, the pair have broken into seven houses. Unlike the proverbial thief in the night, however, they positively seek confrontation, dragging their victims from their slumbers.

Their target, apparently, is cash, not jewels or other valuables. They wear dark clothes and ski-masks, carry guns and their first entry is often through an unlocked garage door. All that police have on them is that they are white men, between 5ft 9in-6ft tall, who talk with British accents.

Their latest strike came at 4am last Tuesday at a sprawling mock-Tudor mansion 10 miles outside Washington, whose occupants were roused and relieved at gunpoint of $1,000 (pounds 625), one of the bandits' biggest hauls so far. The modus operandi does not vary, nor do their good manners. "He was very cultured," an earlier victim told police of one of the burglars, "He could have been a member of the House of Lords for all I know."

So who are these hooded, apparently British, villains, content to steal a few hundred dollars a victim? Modern-day Robin Hoods, some say. Rogue Conservative fundraisers, maintain others, turning a knowing eye to John Major's electoral travails back in the old country.

For Americans especially, their style is incongruous. Here, the epithet "English" summons up visions of duplicitous negotiators and similar manifestations of perfidious Albion. Indeed, "English" is the United States term for the wicked spin an expert pool player gives the cue ball as he executes a devious shot. But burglars who go barging into private homes, rousing gentlemen from their beds? In the USA, old chap, that's not the English way.