A fugitive armed robber dubbed the ''Skull Cracker'' has been caught after going on the run for the third time.

Michael Wheatley, 55, went missing when he was released on a temporary licence from an open prison in Kent on Saturday, and police were investigating whether he had robbed a building society in Surrey earlier today.

The force said that at 2pm Wheatley and another man, aged 53, were arrested in the Tower Hamlets area of east London and are now in police custody.

Detective Chief Inspector Ann Lisseman, from Kent Police, said: ''We are no longer looking for Michael Wheatley. We would like to thank our colleagues at Metropolitan Police Service, Surrey Police and the public for their assistance with our inquiries.''

The force said: ''Kent Police, in partnership with officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, have today arrested two men in east London on suspicion of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

''On 3 May, Kent Police began a search for Michael Wheatley, who had failed to return to HMP Standford Hill after being released on temporary licence.

''At 2pm on 7 May, two men, aged 55 and 53, were arrested in the Tower Hamlets area and are now in police custody. The 55-year-old man was also arrested on suspicion of being unlawfully at large.''

Wheatley, who earned his nickname after pistol-whipping victims, had gone on the run twice in the past and each time staged a series of violent robberies before being caught and re-jailed.

Today, a branch of the Chelsea Building Society in Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, was robbed, and Surrey and Kent Police were investigating whether Wheatley was the culprit.

Jodie Aston, 30, who works in a hair and beauty salon just yards from the building society, said police officers told her they knew who the suspect was.

She said: ''They came in and said the man that robbed the bank was the man that escaped from the open prison and it happened at 10.20am.

''We heard nothing until someone came in and told us. It's quite scary to think we were so close. It could have been in here.''

Barmaid Chloe Theobald, 26, said she was alerted to the incident when she was having lunch with her manager.

She said: ''The police said to my boss 'We think it's the Skull Cracker and he's been sighted in Sunbury'.

''It's quite scary. It's not something that happens every day that there's a man on the loose.''

Wheatley was first jailed in the 1980s for nine years for a post office raid, but fled in 1988 when he was given permission to go to hospital and failed to return.

He went on to commit a series of nine armed robberies, and was jailed again in 1989.

Three years later, authorities released him to go to the optician and again he went on the run, committing eight robberies. He was jailed for seven years in 1993.

The career criminal was released on parole in 2001, and within weeks was staging a series of raids on banks.

Prosecutors said he returned to a life of crime after a relationship with a woman he met while in custody turned sour, and she spent his money and ran up debt.

At the Old Bailey hearing, lawyers revealed that, when asked his occupation by a custody officer, he replied: ''Armed robber.''

He was given 13 life sentences in 2002, and was ordered to serve a minimum of eight years before being considered for release.

The suspect in today's robbery burst into the building society in The Parade, Staines Road, at around 10.20am and threatened staff with a handgun, before being given money from a safe and running away.

Police said they do not know whether the gun was real or imitation.

Wheatley was released on a temporary licence from Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, and is thought to have boarded the 9.20am high- speed train from Sittingbourne, which was heading to Stratford International station.

Police were called when he failed to return to the prison at 6pm and a specialist team of officers, headed by Ms Lisseman, pieced together a timeline of his movements.

There was a confirmed sighting of Wheatley at 7.55pm on Monday in the Strawberry Hill area of Twickenham, and several homes were searched but he was not found.