Five arrested in dawn raids

FIVE men were being questioned last night after a series of raids by police investigating dozens of store and garage robberies in East Anglia in the past year.

FIVE men were being questioned last night after a series of raids by police investigating dozens of store and garage robberies in East Anglia in the past year.

Armed officers made a series of co-ordinated strikes at travellers' sites across Suffolk and Cambridgeshire yesterday as part of Operation Artic, a campaign to stop ram raiders and gunmen who have targeted more than 60 businesses in the region.

Five hundred officers from Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk took part in the yesterday's raids, which resulted in the arrests of five men, aged between 17 and 23, suspected of involvement with a number of robberies.

Police said they were still hunting two more men and officers in charge of the operation said they were confident more arrests would be made in the next day or so. They said the raids had been a success and that no-one was hurt.

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Four arrests were made across Cambridgeshire while one was made at a site in Beck Row, where residents last night told of the moment "all hell broke loose" as officers carried out the dawn raid.

The village, near Mildenhall, was swamped with officers, many armed and wearing body armour, at the height of the strike.

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The raid on the Skeltons Drove travellers' site involved a convoy of more than 20 police vehicles, many of which are believed to have met up at the car park at the Mildenhall College of Technology before the official go-ahead was ordered.

Tony Molloy, who runs the Beck Row Newsagents, watched the raid begin as he was sorting newspapers.

"At around 6.45am this morning suddenly the village was invaded by all these police cars and vans heading down Skeltons Drove," he said.

"Then the helicopter appeared overhead - it seemed as if all hell had broken loose for a while."

Det Ch Insp George Barr, who is heading Operation Arctic, said the gang responsible for the raids had netted hundreds of thousands of pounds during the past year, caused damage to buildings and great distress to shop staff.

Detectives are linking more than 60 raids in East Anglia since August 2004, including almost 30 in Suffolk.

Shops in Burwell, Sudbury, Exning, Clare, Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket were among those to be targeted, with offenders often ramming shops with stolen vehicles and dragging cash machines away.

There has also been a series of raids across Essex with post offices, newsagents and stores targeted.

So far, Operation Arctic has cost £500,000 with extensive investigations taking place across the four counties.

Police said 16 people had been arrested prior to yesterday's raids. Four had been convicted and the remainder were progressing through the legal system.

The five men arrested yesterday were all from the travelling community.

They are each being questioned on suspicion of conspiracy to commit armed robbery, conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary and possession of a firearm with criminal intent.

Police said the men were being questioned about more than 30 offences and all five remained in custody in Cambridgeshire last night.

Det Ch Insp Barr said: "I would appeal to anyone with information to come forward.

"We have five people in custody and are looking for two others. And if anyone has information I would urge them to contact us."

Superintendent Mick Gipp, of Cambridgeshire police, who co-ordinated the dawn raids, said: "This is a big step forward for Operation Arctic.

"Because of the offences themselves it meant that in all five raids we used armed officers to secure the area, we then used unarmed officers to search the properties and to keep the community calm. We are not targeting the travelling community - it is the police arresting people in connection with serious offences.

"We are conducting a number of further investigations. The four forces have worked very closely for some time and we are exceptionally pleased we've made these arrests very peacefully."

Trevor Buckley, owner of the site in Beck Row, said he was in Norwich when the raid happened but insisted the area was generally peaceful and law abiding and he was keen for his encampment not to be seen as a hotbed for criminals. "We don't know much about the fellow they came to get - he hasn't been there for very long," he said.

"It's a site we have had for a number of years and we rarely get the police on the site – it's well known for being peaceful. We have a lot of old age pensioners and peaceful people."

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