Criminals are to receive a festive card from the police wishing them a merry Christmas and a New Year in jail if they do not change their ways.

Ten of the most prolific offenders in Eastbourne will be sent the cards which have a picture of a snowcapped, old-style police lamp on the front and a message inside saying: "You are regularly coming to police attention for committing crime in Eastbourne.

"You will be arrested unless you stop. Happy Christmas, Chief Inspector Peter Mills."

Those who do not heed the message face a festive season behind bars or a grim start to 2004.

Chief Inspector Mills, who took over command of the Eastbourne district from Chief Inspector Martin Stevens at the beginning of November, said criminals knew their days were numbered.

He said: "The intention has always been, as part of Operation Confront, to disrupt the criminal element in Eastbourne and to tell them that no longer will they remain anonymous but will be persistently targeted.

"I will do my best to ruin their Christmas."

The cards, which he will write by hand, have in the past been issued to criminals in Brighton, both at Christmas and on St Valentine's Day.

Two days after the Valentine mail drop last year, The Argus reported how one card had sparked a lovers' tiff when the girlfriend of a convicted burglar, recently released from prison, mistakenly thought the card was from a love rival.

She hit her partner over the head with an ashtray. Legal action against the police was later dropped.

This year, Mr Mills - who says his war with criminals in Eastbourne is personal as some have challenged his authority on the street - has brought his idea with him to his new patch and believes the cards will add further disruption to the habits of regular offenders.

He said known criminals were searched regularly in the street by police officers.

"They know they are known to us. We have disrupted them so much they say to us they no longer carry drugs or stolen goods in the town because they are worried about being stopped."