ESCORTS to ensure the security of the rich and famous are a traditional sign of privilege, but in new public housing estates in Tin Shui Wai they have suddenly become a part of everyday life. Under the supervision of police in this an extensive residential area between Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, estate residents have formed themselves into escort teams. The target of their escort services? Young girls aged under 13. Older girls who request protection will also be escorted through danger areas. The introduction of escort groups came in the wake of five rapes and indecent assaults in several public housing blocks in the area since May. All the victims were aged between eight and 12. Police believe one man to be responsible and have said that he is probably in his 30s, has a mole on his cheek, a dark complexion and is about 1.7 to 1.72 metres tall. While efforts to track down the suspect continue, estate residents are determined to prevent new attacks. When Tin Shui Wai police made a public call for volunteers to escort young girls to their homes, many residents responded immediately. Nearly 400 people have volunteered. ''The residents have only moved in recently. They came from various parts of Hong Kong. Many of them are new immigrants from China,'' said Tin Shui Wai Divisional Commander, Chief Inspector Stephen Ho. He said those factors contributed to a weak sense of community in the housing estates, and that made the police's attempts to combat crime more difficult. While public response to the call for escorts had not been overwhelming, it had been encouraging. ''It was a breakthrough, to some extent. The housing department, the District Office, schools and shops in the area have all thrown their support behind us. ''The most important thing is for the residents to be aware that they are part of the community here, and they have a role to play in combating crime. It's like each household should take all necessary precautions as a typhoon approaches,'' Inspector Hosaid. Secondary school students and other volunteers do escort duty between noon and 5pm, the period during which the rapes have taken place. But students make up only 40 per cent of the volunteer body. Housewives form the majority who, in teams of between three and five, meet the girls at the entrances to their housing blocks, accompany them in the lifts and walk them down the narrow corridors to their front doors. The rapist's victims had been alone in the lift with him before they were attacked. One volunteer, tutor Vong Pui-I, has no fears for her own safety. ''We work in teams, so there shouldn't be any problem with safety. Someone must be able to rush for help in case anything happens,'' she said. Flanked by two other women volunteers just outside the shopping centre in the Tin Yiu estate, she said she would urge parents to accompany their young daughters home whenever they could. ''It's better to have more volunteer escorts, but it's best for the mothers themselves to pick up their own daughters.'' One of her companions agreed: ''Parents shouldn't let children aged under 13 go out alone.'' The women volunteers are helping police in the distribution of pamphlets advising women what to do if they are accosted. The women believe the recent programme has helped heighten parents' awareness. Pointing to the stream of people outside the shopping centre, one volunteer said: ''More and more mothers are now going out with their daughters.'' Plain-clothes and uniformed police also patrol the area outside the two shopping centres in the major estates, Tin Yiu and Tin Shui, and man two temporary command posts used to direct escort services. On any given day, escorts may be requested in between one and three blocks. There are 15 blocks in each estate. About 25 to 30 residents do escort duty each day, and are often accompanied by plain-clothes officers. Police insist the number of escorts is less important than the overall impact of the scheme. ''We hope that in the long term, residents will be alert to what happens around them; be our eyes and ears.'' ''They [the residents] are actually partners with us in the fight against crime. It's only that, as police, we have the legal authority and responsibility to act,'' said Inspector Ho. The escort service would be reviewed soon and a decision would be taken by the middle of the month on whether it should be continued. If the service does continue, the volunteers are happy to prolong their services. Chinese-speaking Thai, Wongsueb Somchit, said. ''I'll continue with escorting. My two sons have grown up. They don't need me to take care of them anymore.'' But she pinpointed flaws in the escort service scheme. ''The scheme would be a success if more people actually come forward. Some who signed up for it didn't show up. Some came down, but disappeared a short while later. ''They probably felt uneasy being with a group of total strangers. Some didn't like the fact that we just idled away our time when no one asked us to be escorts.'' Form One student Tang Ying-kit is comfortable with his escort duties, although his parents are a little worried. He and his school-mate, 12-year-old Tang Chi-fung, have on four occasions gone straight to escort duties after school. Each day they escorted more than 10 young girls safely to their homes. ''It's fun,'' he said. Police plan to select the 10 most committed escorts from the task force of volunteers and show their appreciation for their community spirit at a special awards ceremony on December 16. A police officer said community concern for law and order was vital, particularly in an area as new as Tin Shui Wai where only a few mutual aid committees have been formed. Tin Shui Wai has been a well-known hide-out for illegal Chinese immigrants posing as construction workers. The presence of a number of unfinished or vacant flats is of help to criminals. Police have not confined their attention to the two estates. Residents in nearby Home Ownership Scheme flats have been warned about the spate of rape attacks. Even an arrest would not stop the new drive. Chief Inspector Ho stressed police would continue to build up links with this quite isolated but constantly expanding community.