Wearing balaclavas to protect their identities, they look like a group of cowardly IRA terrorists.

But these young men aren't killing innocent men, women and children by putting bombs in litter bins. These are after a much less controversial target.

These are vigilantes, armed with a machete that could easily decapitate a person, who say they are protecting their neighbourhood's women and girls from a sex attacker who raped a 19 year old and also chased women in two other incidents.

And this is not a big city like London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow. It is the little village of Merstham in Surrey's stockbroker belt.

Pictured: The machete-wielding vigilantes patrolling a 'stockbroker belt' village

By Daily Mail Reporter
30th January 2009
Daily Mail

They said they wanted to make their fellow villagers feel safer. But this gang of self- styled vigilantes looked more Northern Ireland paramilitary than Neighbourhood Watch.

Wearing menacing balaclavas and brandishing a machete, the mob got together because of fears that a sex attacker was on the loose.

The men, aged 18 to 30, said they would interrogate any suspects they caught in the Surrey commuter village of Merstham and hand out their own punishment.

Menacing: Police hunted down the leader of a gang of self-styled vigilantes after they posed for this photo wearing balaclavas and carrying a machete

But after they posed for a local newpaper photo, their leader was summoned by Surrey's divisional police commander, Chief Superintendent Adrian Harper, and told in no uncertain terms that vigilantes were not welcome.

He said: 'I cannot emphasise enough how irresponsible it is for people to take the law into their own hands.

'Often "justice" groups target the wrong person and an innocent member of the community is seriously injured.'

Later, the gang's leader, who would not be named, said: 'I guess a few of the guys got a bit carried away.

' We have ditched the balaclavas and handed in the machete.

'But loads of people support what we are doing. They say they feel safer with us out there because they don't see enough police walking the beat.'

Merstham, Surrey: Home of the 'Merstham Justice Squad'

Police are investigating two incidents in which young women were chased in Merstham and the nearby town of Redhill on December 30, and the rape of a 19-year-old girl in Redhill last May.

The gang leader said: 'We all know one of the girls who was attacked.

'We didn't want our wives, sisters and daughters falling prey to this beast, so we decided to go out there as a visible presence to scare him off and hopefully even catch him.

'We were also on the lookout for any burglars or anyone else posing a threat.

'We think the police are too concerned about catching kids smoking cannabis and drinking when they should be concentrating on the real criminals.'