Police are hunting up to ten offenders involved in a "high value, daring and audacious" smash and grab raid on three jewellers at intu Watford on Friday - believed to be linked to organised crime outside the town.

Masked raiders forced entry to the shopping centre at around 2.40am on Friday through shoe shop Gordon Scott, before smashing the shop windows of Beaverbrooks, Ernest Jones and Swag to snatch a quantity of designer jewellery and watches.

Approximately five minutes before the break-in a series of "distraction" fires and road blocks - including attaching a heavy duty metal chain to posts across Beechen Grove - were set up in what detectives believe was a bid to prevent the emergency services attending the break-in.

In one fire, two cars were set alight in nearby Gladstone Road. A blue Audi and a green Polo were destroyed in the blaze, which also damaged several other vehicles including a blue Ford, a silver Honda, a white Nissan and a white Volkswagen.

Detective Sergeant Jo Goodson, with Operation Chesterfield, the taskforce investigating the offence, said: "We believe this was linked to organised crime.

"We think the other incidents were road blocks and distractions to prevent to emergency services getting to the shopping centre.

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"A number of people were involved in this offence, we think up to ten.

"It was very well planned, audacious and daring offence. It is not something we are used to in Watford, certainly I’ve never seen anything like this."

One witness to the fire chaos in the early hours of Friday morning was woken up by a bright light outside his window.

The Beechen Grove resident said: "I got up and looked outside to see a huge fire burning in the ring road. It was too extraordinary to believe.

"What appears to be a telephone pole had been downed and doused with petrol, then set on fire. At first the flames were about six-feet high but quickly subsided.

"At this point, two cars had come along the road but fortunately both managed to stop and avoid driving over the pole. This is very lucky as just after the pole, a heavy duty chain had been fixed across the road at waist height.

"It could have easily wiped out a motorcycle.

"I heard two loud bangs coming from Queen's Road. I ran round to find two cars both on fire, with the fire brigade already dealing with the flames."

Queens Road, Loates Lane and Gladstone Road remained cordoned off until Friday afternoon.

Operation Chesterfield detectives have made a desperate appeal to a taxi driver who picked up a fare by intuWatford at the time of the incident to come forward as he is believed to have information important to the investigation.

DS Goodson continued: "We desperately need to talk to the taxi driver who picked up a fare in the area at the time of the incident, and any other witnesses who were there.

"This potentially could have been much more serious with the fire and the road blocks, fortunately nobody was hurt.

"High value items were stolen, and the damage to the six vehicles and premises all adds to the cost of this offence. It was very well organised.

"We have a dedicated investigation team. Going forward we will be looking at other areas with similar offences to see if it is the same people involved.

"We have been in contact with other forces around the country to see if they have dealt with similar incidents."

Four men wearing dark clothes and balaclavas were seen leaving the building via the Gordon Scott shoe shop after the burgulary.

Police are looking at CCTV from the area, but confirmed some of the offenders were carrying umbrellas possibly in an attempt to avoid the cameras.

Alice Gregory, spokesman for Ernest Jones jewellers, said: "Our efforts are currently focused upon ensuring the welfare of our staff and we’ll be spending time with each of them to offer them counselling following this robbery. All of the stolen items possess serial numbers which means they will be completely traceable if any attempt at resale is made."

Sophie Williams, spokesman for intu Watford shopping centre, said: "Fortunately no one was injured during the incidents and we are working closely with the police to help their investigation."

Anyone with any information in relation to this incident should contact DS Jo Goodson via Hertfordshire Constabulary’s non-emergency number 101, quoting Operation Chesterfield.

Alternatively call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.