Five men with sledgehammers, axes and wire cutters who were arrested outside the Neiman-Marcus store in Northwest Washington early yesterday had planned to bypass the expensive watches and crystal glasses and go for nearly $5 million in furs, D.C. police said.

Acting on information supplied by a "reliable informant," police said, they arrested four men about 12:30 a.m. outside the Mazza Gallerie store on the third-floor level. A fifth suspect was arrested outside the mall, they said.

All five men were charged with second-degree burglary.

While 12 undercover officers were stationed inside and outside the mall, police said, the men were "allowed access" to the store, at 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, through a loading dock.

As one of the men stood guard near a van and a car parked outside, police said, the other suspects went to the third floor and broke into an electrician's office that shares a wall with the store.

The men started working on the wall, according to police, but "much to their surprise," police arrested them.

The men were apparently going to head for "the big-ticket items," a store spokeswoman said.

Police said that, based on information supplied by the informant, they believe that the men were planning to try to burglarize the store's fur storage area on the second floor.

"They could have gotten anywhere from $2 million to $5 million in furs, depending on how many they wanted to stuff into the van," a police source said.

The spokeswoman for the store called the police figure a "guesstimate" and said she did not know how many furs are kept in the storage area.

The store, headquartered in Dallas, is famous for expensive and eccentric novelty items that in the past have included his-and-hers blimps, submarines, windmills and ostriches.

About 25 furs were on display yesterday, including a natural silver fox jacket from Canada for $7,500, a full-length natural tanuki from Finland for $7,995 and a crystal-dyed fox jacket from Finland for $6,995.

Charged in the incident were: Lawrence Moss, 27, of 3717 1/2 Sherman Ave. NW; Richard Price, 27, of 4275 Foote St. NE; Lawrence Inabinet, 30, of 1311 Columbia Rd. NW; James Lee, 35, of 2381 11th St. NW, and Darryl Johnson, 30, of 2381 11th St. NW.

Four of the suspects were "targets" of the District police department's repeat-offenders unit, officials said.

A person is targeted by the unit when he or she is suspected in "about five serious crimes a week," according to police.

The suspects appeared yesterday afternoon before commissioner Thomas Gaye at D.C. Superior Court, where Moss was charged with second-degree burglary and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. The other four suspects were charged with second-degree burglary.