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Businesses on alert as robbers hit

A MAJOR police hunt swung into action today after armed robbers struck three times in an overnight blitz on east Belfast.

A MAJOR police hunt swung into action today after armed robbers struck three times in an overnight blitz on east Belfast.

Two masked men targeted three businesses in the area, which left one employee slightly injured.

The spree, which lasted around two hours started at around 7.05pm when the men robbed a mini-market at Belmont Church Road. They fled with cash and phonecards.

At around 7.50pm the culprits struck again at a petrol station in Grand Parade.

A shop attendant was slightly injured during the attack and the thieves made off with two tills, which did not contain any money.

Another filling station on the Ravenhill Road was robbed at around 8.25pm and the two men escaped with a sum of cash in a Red Vauxhall Astra car, which police believed was used in all three thefts.

Police today confirmed they are investigating a link between all three robberies.

Bill Jeffrey, vice-chairman of the Small Business Federation, said firms in the area are afraid someone could get killed if the spate of thefts continue.

He said today: "The one thing that small businesses are desperately concerned about is what appears to be the start of a campaign of lawlessness and robbery.

"We are very vulnerable and really do need the full support of the police in our local areas. We hope these are not the work of ex-paramilitaries who are having difficulty funding their lifestyle.

"The fact that a gun has been used raises fears that someone could be killed during a robbery."

Peter Robinson, East Belfast Assembly member and the new Minister for Regional Development said paramilitaries seemed the likely suspects.

He said today: "There is the suspicion that these kinds of robberies may have paramilitary links and indicate that paramilitary organisations are still active."

Carmel Hanna, SDLP Assembly member for the area said the robbers must be brought to justice.

The suspects are described as being in their late teens, slightly build and around 5ft 8inches tall.

The man with the handgun was wearing a red top, blue jeans and black ski mask. His accomplice wore a beige top, blue jeans and white ski mask.

Police today urged business owners in the area to be vigilant and urged anyone near the premises at the time of the robberies to contact detectives at Castlereagh on (01232) 650222, or Crimestoppers 0800 555111.