A SHARP-EYED shopkeeper may have thwarted a raid on a business in the centre of Bishop Auckland at the weekend.

Three men wearing balaclava helmets were seen in Westgate Road, behind Newgate Street, on Saturday night.

Police believe they were planning to break into one of the premises on the west side of Newgate Street, but ran off when they were spotted.

Detectives last night appealed for help from the public to piece together a chain of events which, they believe, were part of a plot that could have resulted in a major burglary.

It started on the Abraham Industrial Estate, in St Helen Auckland, soon after 7.45pm, when two pipes for oxyacetylene burners were stolen from a site cabin.

At about the same time, a white H registered Ford Luton van, with roller shutters at the back, was stolen from the same area.

At about 9.50pm, a shopkeeper saw a trio of hooded men acting suspiciously behind one of the premises in Newgate Street.

Realising they had been spotted they ran off. Soon afterwards, two people saw a white Luton van being driven away from the area by a man wearing the same type of hood.

When police searched the area on Saturday night they found two gas bottles dumped in a shop yard.

They recovered the van from Stranton Street, on the other side of the A689, at 3pm on Sunday.

Detective Sergeant Mark Willoughby, of Bishop Auckland CID, said yesterday: "It seems obvious that these men were targeting one of the businesses in the town centre but ran off when they were disturbed.

"We believe we have pieced together some of the events which took place on Saturday evening, but we need people to help us fill in any gaps.

"Somebody will have seen at least part of what happened, but did not realise it was important at the time."

Anyone with information can contact Bishop Auckland CID on (01388) 603566.