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Fugitive spreads fear and curiosity in quiet English town

By Simon Hooper, CNN
  • Police hold community meeting in Rothbury to reassure residents
  • Authorities now believe Raoul Moat is threat to wider public
  • Local businesses such as gift shops and pubs dependent on the summer suffer
  • Two shooting victims remain in critical but stable condition

Rothbury, England (CNN) -- The regular Thursday evening "Dance Keep Fit" class may have been cancelled but Rothbury's community hall had never been so busy as concerned residents packed inside to hear the latest from police chiefs on the hunt for suspected killer Raoul Moat.

This quiet town in northern England -- a picturesque smattering of old stone buildings dotted along the river Coquet -- is a popular base for hikers, campers and adventurers heading into the stunning surrounding countryside of Northumberland.

Yet for the past few days, Rothbury has become the surreal backdrop to the search for Moat, who has been missing since allegedly shooting and wounding his former girlfriend and killing her new partner in nearby Newcastle last weekend. Moat is also alleged to have shot and wounded a police officer on patrol on Sunday.

On Tuesday, Rothbury was in a state of "lockdown" with armed police manning checkpoints on roads in and out of the town and stationed on street corners. Residents were warned to stay indoors amid suspicion that the fugitive was hiding out in the local area.

By Thursday night however, curiosity, as much as concern, appeared to have got the better of most -- despite the fact that police revealed earlier in the day they now believed Moat posed a threat to the "wider public."

"It's probably the safest place in Britain tonight," says a woman as she queues to squeeze into the back of the hall between police officers in body armor standing guard by the doors. With several hundred already in the room, those unable to find space to stand clamber onto the stage at the back or sit down in the aisles.

"The fire exits are located here, here and here," says Acting Chief Constable Sue Sim, raising a laugh by impersonating an air steward. "We have exceeded the capacity of this hall -- but we have the chief fire officer here who is happy for this meeting to go ahead."

As the meeting finally begins, however, there is no doubting the seriousness of the situation which the small town faces.

"Do you think there is a risk of him taking families in isolated farmhouses hostage?" one woman asks nervously. "Is it safe to keep the schools open?" wonders a worried parent.

Chief Superintendent Mark Dennett patiently attempts to assuage residents' concerns over whether it's safe to walk their dogs or check on their livestock; whether the police should be searching their garden sheds; and whether next weekend's town music festival should go ahead, or Friday's film night.

"There is no specific threat against the schools, children or anybody else in the Rothbury area. This is about the wider public," Dennett says. "The advice I have given is business as usual."

Nonetheless, it has been a two-mile radius around the town that has been the focus of the police operation and there is no suggestion that they expect to be leaving Rothbury any time soon.

Faced with a vast expanse of forest, wilderness, ravines and hidden caves, Sim warns the town that the hunt for Moat may be far from over. "You know your landscape and terrain. It is going to take time," she says.

On the streets of Rothbury afterwards, there is praise and respect for the police but concern that Moat remains at large -- and nervousness about how it all might end.

"There's no doubt that they're doing a good job, but they haven't got him yet," Graham Bates, a local builder, told CNN.

Sam Kemp, a mother of three, said that people were more tense than ever because the supposed wider threat that Moat posed to the public hadn't been elaborated on by police.

"Time is getting on. He must be getting more desperate and more unhinged so everyone just has to be cautious," Kemp said.

But she said she was glad there appeared to be less visible armed police in the town: "It's more possible for people to go about their daily business without armed gunmen on every corner, which is what it was like on Tuesday. It was quite intimidating for everyone."

Retired farmer Keith Lee agreed that the mood of the town was more relaxed -- "but we do lock our doors at night," he added.

Among those suffering most in the town are local businesses such as gift shops, tea shops and pubs dependent on the summer tourism trade. Lee said the saga had had a "dire effect" on passing trade as visitors stayed away and locals stayed home.

And for many there remained still a sense of disbelief that their town had been forced into the headlines.

"Nothing ever happens here," said student Charlotte Burdon, as three police cars carrying armed officers sped down Rothbury's high street and television crews prepared to go live on evening news shows.

"Everybody always says that, but really, nothing ever does."