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Bulgaria: Crime Groups Suspected In Car Thefts

By Ron Synovitz and Petko Bocharov

Prague/Sofia; 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A rash of luxury car thefts in Sofia appears to be a signal from organized criminal groups that they are not out of business in Bulgaria, despite Interior Ministry claims to the contrary.

Dozens of car hijackings and thefts have targeted high-profile personalities in Sofia since the Interior Ministry announced at the New Year that it had brought criminal groups under control.

In many cases, drivers of expensive cars have been forced out of their vehicles at gunpoint at a traffic light and robbed. Some have been knocked unconscious. The list of victims includes government officials and foreign diplomats as well as leading foreign and Bulgarian businessmen.

When Deputy Industry Minister Edit Getova's Mercedes Benz was stolen last month, there was no attempt to hide or resell the vehicle. Instead, the thieves simply informed authorities where to find the car.

With little possibility of reselling such well-known and unique vehicles or smuggling them abroad, the thefts appear to be aimed at undermining confidence in Prime Minister Ivan Kostov's government. Any one of several economic or political groups could ultimately be behind the crimes.

The thefts have revealed that despite widespread sackings of corrupt police, organized criminal groups still maintain contacts with individual officers.

At least three police on the national force already have been sacked this year for alleged corruption. Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev recently admitted that an officer in Bulgaria's anti-auto theft unit warned suspect Gancho Petrov Vutchkov about his pending arrest. The 27-year-old Vutchkov continues to evade capture.

Interior Minister Bonev said: "We had an employee in the special police unit who didn't do his job well and his chief wanted to fire him. But without the knowledge of the minister, at a lower level, he was transferred to the unit in charge of auto thefts, and in this capacity, he betrayed us."

The thefts also highlight the lack of coordination between national and municipal police forces. Sofia Police Chief Bozhidar Alexiev blames organized criminal groups for the thefts. He notes a pattern in the methods used and the efficient "professional" manner in which thefts are carried out. But National Police Chief Vassil Vassilev denies that the thefts are related.

"There is no connection between the crimes. These are thieves who roam around and use force to steal because they've been thrown out of other businesses and now are emerging under the sunlight. I am telling you categorically, the so-called boom of auto theft is fiction."

The lack of cooperation between police forces is nothing new to Bulgarians. In 1994, two officers were killed and another critically injured in a gun battle between Sofia police and an Interior Ministry anti-terrorist unit.

Authorities later said that the clash was the result of poor communication between the two forces when both were trying to arrest the same suspect. But the incident led to widespread allegations that the different police units were working for competing criminal groups.

At about the same time, police in the town of Pazardjik were caught using their legal powers to help a gang of car thieves that was bringing stolen vehicles to Bulgaria from Western Europe.

The Pazardjik police were "laundering" the stolen cars by issuing new registration numbers. That incident brought harsh criticism from Brussels about police corruption in Bulgaria.

Since 1994, many police across the country have been sacked in an attempt to end corruption. But with Bulgarian newspapers once again complaining that crime is out of control, police are coming under increasing scrutiny.

National Police Chief Vassilev says the public outcry is understandable. He says he has placed all border checkpoints on high alert and tightened control of incoming and outgoing vehicles. He also says his officers are now working closely with foreign and international authorities, including Britain's Scotland Yard and Interpol.