Gardaí are searching for at least three armed men who stole two paintings worth up to £3m from Russborough House in County Wicklow this afternoon. The men arrived in a blue Volkswagen Golf car and a jeep at 12.40pm this afternoon. They rammed the building with the jeep, then stole the paintings. The balaclava-wearing thieves unsuccessfully tried to burn the jeep before escaping in the car.

A massive Garda search is now underway and roadblocks have been set up. There are no reports of any injuries. This is the second time that one of the paintings, Gainsborough's "Madame Baccelli", has been stolen. The infamous Dublin gangster, Martin Cahill, nicknamed The General, and his gang stole the painting, which portrays a dancing lady in white with blue ribbons, in a 1986 raid. The other missing painting is Belotto's "Scene from Florence". Both paintings are originals, even though most works at the state-owned Russborough House are copies.

The Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, has described today's robbery as an "outrage". Raymond Keaveney said that it was a disgrace that the generosity of the Beit Foundation, which has donated some of its finest masterpieces to the Gallery, should be repaid in this way. This is the third theft from Russborough House. British heiress Dr Rose Dugdale stole 19 paintings that were valued at £8m in 1974. Sir Alfred Beit and his wife were bound and gagged during the raid. Dr Dugdale was later sentenced to nine years imprisonment.