Traders on red alert as thieves hit Midhurst and Petworth village stores

Village shops across the Midhurst and Petworth area have been on red alert after a series of organised raids netted thousands of pounds of mainly cigarettes and alcohol.

Among those targeted over the past two weeks are the Somerfield supermarket at Petworth, and Oak Tree Stores at Ifold.

There were similar incidents at Pulborough, in the Worthing area and in Surrey.

Ifold's shop, with one at Rudgwick, was hit by a gang of four men on the first night of the raids.

They forced open the door with a crowbar and got away with cigarettes worth 1,500 and a small amount of cash.

Owner Sharon Overington, who lives on the premises with her husband Paul, said: "The alarm went off at about 11.50pm. My husband dashed to see what was going on. They grabbed what they could and made off."

Three of the raiders were in the shop and the fourth was waiting at the wheel of the getaway vehicle, a Volkswagen Passat with a false registration plate, Mrs Overington said.

"They had obviously reccied the place beforehand," she added.

"They drove in from a side road so they would be facing the right way to get away quickly.

"It is not very nice to think people have been round sussing it all out.

"You think that with all the security, the alarms and CCTV, it would put people off. But they obviously knew what they were doing."

Police who responded to her immediate 999 call took 40 minutes to reach the shop, Mrs Overington said: "And they had to call us to find out where we were."

At Petworth's Somerfield supermarket, bottles of champagne were stolen, but an attempt to break open the cigarette kiosk failed.

A spokeswoman said: "Our store in Petworth was broken into in the early hours of Monday, October 19. The store was closed while a police forensic examination was carried out and damage to the doors was repaired."

The store re-opened for business at around lunchtime that day.

"We appeal to anyone with information about the crime to come forward," the spokeswoman added.

Village shopowners in the Midhurst and Petworth area who are licensed to sell alcohol were alerted to the raids by Chichester District Council's licensing department.

Lorraine Payne, who runs Plaistow Stores with her family, said they were grateful for the warning.

"It's not nice to think it might happen. We live on the premises with small children and elderly people.

"The place is alarmed, but even so you sleep with half an ear open."

According to Sussex Police, three people have now been arrested in the Thames Valley in connection with investigations into the shop raids.

One of the three was also arrested in Sussex in connection with break-ins.

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