ELECTRICITY engineers were still struggling tonight to restore power to many thousands of customers whose supply was cut off following major fire damage to high voltage electricity cables.

EDF Energy has warned work to fully restore supplies could take more than 36 hours to complete.

Thousands of people across Bexley, Dartford and the Orpington area lost their electricity supply, with shops, offices and Bexleyheath's Cineworld, forced to close.

The company said vandals may have been responsible for the fire which broke out on a cable bridge in Dartford at 12.47pm today.

The bridge carries the cables across a waterway behind the Arriva bus garage in Central Road, Dartford.

EDF Energy Networks engineers are currently on-site working closely with Kent Fire Brigade.

EDFsaid it has nearly 100 employees working on the incident.

It added: "Our teams will be working through the night, including at the site."

A company spokeswoman said: "Our priority is restoring customer supplies as quickly as is safely possible.

"However, this is a complex and difficult situation and the bridge needs to be safe enough for our engineers to begin to carry out repairs and then lay and join new cables to the network.

"We expect this work to take at least 24 to 36 hours, maybe longer, although we will try to restore supplies to as many customers as we can, as soon as possible."

She added: "However, it is likely there will be periods of further interruption until the full restoration work is complete."

The company promised: "Staff in our call centres are endeavouring to contact vulnerable customers who may be affected.

"We will also be providing generators for key sites where possible."

EDF said the locks on the security gates at each end of the cable bridge appeared to have been broken open.

It says four major electricity circuits have been damaged in the blaze, as well as damage to one of the bridge's concrete supports.

Supplies to some areas were restored gradually during the afternoon, using other routes, but there are still large numbers of people without electricity tonight.

As well as working on-site with Kent Fire Brigade, EDF engineers are also liaising with local council officials and the Kent and Met. police forces.

The spokeswoman said: "We do appreciate people's patience and apologise to everyone affected."

She added: "Tampering with the electricity network is extremely dangerous, and in this case has caused considerable damage and major inconvenience to many thousands of people who have been left without electricity supplies."

People are urged to listen to local radio stations for the latest information.

The EDF Energy emergency number is 0800 028 0247, although the situation is unlikely to change for some time.

Bexley police say they are working with Bexley Council and other agencies to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Bexley residents.

Emergency services and hospitals are working as normal and additional police patrols are taking place across Bexley borough.

The London Fire Brigade has advised people using candles because they have no power, to take particular care and never leave them unattended.

Bexley Council is trying to ensure that disruption to essential services is kept to a minimum.

And Bexley Care Trust (NHS) is making sure vulnerable people under its care are kept safe.

People with concerns about their health should continue to call their local health services as they would normally do.

If your GP is affected by the power failure, call NHS Direct on 0845 4647.

For out of hours enquiries continue to call Grabadoc on 020 8319 3030.