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The East: Railway Crime Frightens Passengers As Police Do Little

Prague, 4 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The crime may occur on the train from Moscow to Prague, from Bratislava to Budapest, or Moscow through Warsaw to Berlin, but the method is much the same.

Late at night, when the passengers are asleep, a group of young men prowls the corridor. When they choose a compartment, two of the men pry open the door and enter. The other men -- four or five -- remain outside blocking the view of any passersby. Robbing the passengers inside the compartment takes just a moment if they are asleep, and not much longer if they waken and have to be intimidated.

According to RFE/RL correspondents who have interviewed conductors, passengers and police in recent weeks, at least one robbery occurs almost every night on most of the major rail routes linking Western Europe with the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe and the cities of the former Soviet Union.

Certain trains have become particularly infamous. The Polish press has dubbed the train from Berlin through Warsaw to Moscow the "Slaughterhouse." And aboard the train from Moscow to Prague, via Minsk, the conductors routinely warn passengers to lock their doors at night and be on the alert for attacks after 2300, when thieves usually board.

Yet, even as passengers lose their money on the night trains year after year, the problem continues. Police in the countries of origin, transit and destination of the trains know of the attacks, but have yet to stop them.

One reason for police inaction is that few train passengers file robbery reports. Victims who are robbed in their sleep often do not realize their losses until the next morning, when the train has already crossed the border into the next country. Instead of returning to file a complaint at the scene of the crime, victims go to their embassy after they reach their destination. But the crime report, taken by the embassy, usually ends there. The Belarus embassy in Prague told our correspondent it can do little because Belarus police have no jurisdiction over crimes in another country.

When a passenger does interrupt his trip to report the crime where it happened, it is usually only to get an official report needed to replace a document. Police officers told our correspondents that losses of money are rarely reported because many passengers are traveling vendors who fail to declare to customs larger amounts of cash they carry between countries.

The fast shuttling of trains across borders, and the reluctance of many passangers to report their losses, creates ideal conditions for criminal gangs who, in some cases, board trains in relays night after night. Our Warsaw correspondent reports that on the train going from Warsaw to Berlin, a first gang is aboard the train as it leaves the station at 23:35. Two hours later, the gang leaves the train at Kutno. A second gang boards at Kutno and stays with the train to Poznan. A third gang works from Poznan to the German border.

As fearful passengers complain about their losses to the media, and the media raises the issue publicly, there are some signs that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are beginning to do more to crack down on railway crime.

Polish police, hounded by the media, are now increasing train security. A spokesman for Poland's Rail Protection Service, Zygmunt Warszakowski, told our correspondent that as of the first of this month armed security officers and police have stepped up patrols on all international trains "in the most dangerous spots." The officers, uniformed and in plain clothes, are riding trains both east-west and north-south between Warsaw and the Polish borders.

In Slovakia, railway police are holding talks with their Polish and Czech counterparts on allowing security officers to cross borders to catch criminals. Slovakia's Railway Police Chief Martin Sitiar says that would end the ability criminals now have to operate freely in border regions once Slovak police leave the train and before a neighboring country's police board. The no-man's zone between countries currently gives criminals, as Sitiar puts it, a good opportunity to rob passengers.

Until such cooperation becomes standard througout the region, the best defense against railway crime appears to be what many passengers are already doing themselves. They pay more to reserve a seat or bed when they can afford it -- because railway security forces in many countries concentrate on protecting the highest-paying customers. They join other passengers in crowded compartments for group safety and secure the doors with their own chains or locks. And at night, they do not open the door for anyone but the conductor.

(Contributing to this report were Chris Klimiuk in Warsaw, Helena Naumchik of the Belarus Service in Prague, and Genevieve Zalatorius in Bratislava).