A knife-wielding man with a painted face and wearing a mask jumped out at a group of children in Durham and chased them to school in the latest incident in the "creepy clown" crime phenomenon.

The children, aged 11 and 12, were on their way to the Hermitage Academy in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, at 8.40am today (7 October) when the menacing clown pounced at them and pursued them, leaving them distressed but unhurt, said Durham Constabulary.

The masked, face-painted clown was wearing tracksuit bottoms, red shoes and a multi-coloured top.

Neighbourhood Sergeant Mel Sutherland said: "The children arrived at school understandably upset and distressed by this incident and we are currently trying to locate this man.

"My officers will be on patrol outside the school at home time this afternoon to offer reassurance to children and parents.

"We believe this to be part of a much larger prank which is currently sweeping across the USA and parts of the UK.

"It is very alarming he was carrying a knife - however, we do not think he intended to harm the children and, as far as we are aware, this is part of the prank.

"There are currently several social media accounts dedicated to this 'Killer Clown' craze and we are also looking into those and who is using them.

"I would like to appeal directly to the people who are dressing up and carrying out these stupid acts to think seriously about what they are doing. The distress they are causing to young children is unnecessary and it needs to stop."

The creepy clown phenomenon originated in Greenville County, North Carolina in August, when people dressed as clowns attempted to lure children into woodland. It has since spread across the US, with 12 people arrested in recent weeks following incidents in Georgia, Alabama and Virginia.

Creepy clown attacks arrived in the UK this week,with Northumberland Police announcing on 4 October that several incidents of pranksters dressed as clowns menacing children had been reported to them within days. The next day, they announced the arrest of a 13-year-old with a "bladed article" in relation to these incidents.

There have also been creepy clown incidents reported in Essex. Police said two people dressed as clowns approached two girls on their way to school in Clacton-on-Sea on 4 October and asked them if they wanted to attend a birthday party, before driving away in a black van.

Essex Police said they were also aware of a number of reports from concerned residents across the country relating to people dressed as clowns, specifically near to schools. Incidents have also been reported in Suffolk and Leeds.

Acting Chief Inspector Darren Deex of Essex Police said: "We would also like to warn people who are thinking of being actively involved in this 'craze' that in doing so they may commit offences under the Public Order Act 1986 and to be more considerate of the feelings of others, especially young children and the elderly."