ARMED raiders have been jailed for seven years after stealing watches and jewellery worth nearly £2m from a jewellery store in Thurrock.

The gang struck at the Ernest Jones shop at Lakeside shopping centre in the early hours of Saturday, April 12.

They took watches and jewellery included high-value watches by Cartier, Breitling and Tag Heuer.

As the thieves fled on foot with their haul they set fire to a number of road blocks made from tyres in an apparent attempt to distract or impede the police response.

A parked police car was also set on fire with a petrol bomb.

But they were foiled when they were tracked by a police dog and handler who followed the gang's trail up an embankment and along the railway to South Ockendon where all eight were later arrested.

Officers obtained further evidence when a member of the public handed in a holdall containing jewellery worth around ᆪ500,000 stolen from the Lakeside store. The bag was found in a garden at South Ockendon on Sunday May 18.

The eight men, all Romanian nationals, pleaded guilty to aggravated burglary when they appeared at Basildon Crown Court today, Thursday July 17.

The judge sentenced them immediately and they were each given seven years for the offence.

They were Emanoil Cretu, 26, Mihai Cuptor, 20, Claudiu-Eugen Cretu, 22, Gheorghe Rusu, 21, Ion-Alexandru Cuptor, 22, Costica Ferestrauaru, 21, Ovidiu Cretu, 18, and Dimitri Spataru, 24. They were all of no fixed address.

DCI Stuart Smith, who led the investigation, said: "This was a well-planned and highly-organised attack on an iconic site in the South East of England. The use of burning barricades and setting fire to a parked police vehicle, unprecedented in Essex, were intended to hinder the police response and intimidate officers attending.

"Not only did officers attend the incident immediately the response was so well co-ordinated that the very confusing dynamics were quickly assessed and a search commenced.

"An excellent response by force assets led to dog handler Pc Mick Finch and his dog Cody finding the direction that the suspects made off in and he commenced the pursuit down the railway lines to South Ockendon with mobile units being moved ahead of him in order to cut off the fleeing suspects."

He added: "National borders no longer stop criminals from committing crimes internationally and in the same way as British criminals commit crime on the continent here we had Romanian criminals committing crime in Essex.

"The assistance of law enforcement agencies in Romania cannot be over emphasised as these subjects were already of interest to law enforcement in their home countries.

"Whether they are European criminals or home-grown, I hope that the hugely professional and co-ordinated response of Essex police and the Serious Crime Directorate together with the sentences handed out will show similar like-minded criminals that committing serious crime in Essex and Kent can only end one way.ヤ