They are the smash and grab raiders targeting convenience stores across the county.

Tens of thousands of pounds worth of cigarettes have been stolen by the gangs of thieves who are breaking into shops in the dead of night.

With their faces covered by hooded tops, they prise open security shutters and then use anything they can, including paving slabs and lumps of concrete, to smash windows and climb inside.

Armed with heavy duty builders merchants bags or green garden waste sacks, they empty out cigarette kiosks before fleeing the scene as quickly as they can before police respond to the burglar alarms.

So far this year there have been 20 cigarette burglaries across Southampton and the surrounding area where, each time, thieves have left with a haul worth thousands.

One of the biggest thefts is known to have amounted to more than £15,000.

Detectives investigating the break-ins believe the same gang are responsible for at least six – but cannot rule out that they might be behind even more.

They believe the stolen cigarettes are being offered for sale within Hampshire.

Among the stores targeted are the Co-op, Asda, Londis, McColls and even a petrol station in the New Forest.

Now police are appealing for help in finding those responsible for the burglaries – and say the answer may well lie in local communities.

Detective Inspector Dave Morgan, from Southampton CID, said he believed the crimes were highly organised and pre planned.

He said: “Cigarettes are the main target because of their high retail value and I strongly believe that the people committing these burglaries are very much part of a chain operating, rather than on the off chance.

“The break-ins are pre-planned and it is likely that an outlet from which to sell the cigarettes on has already been determined and they are being re-circulated in the local area.”

Det Insp Morgan said that similar burglaries are happening across the country – and this is not a problem specific to Hampshire.

However meetings have taken place with security bosses both nationally and locally from the Co-op group, who have found themselves falling victim to the thieves repeatedly, to try and tackle the problem.

But he added: “We very much need help from the community who may be able to tell us who is committing these offences and more importantly, what is happening to the cigarettes.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact police in Southampton on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.