'Quiet' Copenhagen cracks down on deadly gang war

28th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

A bloody gang war between bikers and youths of immigrant origin has shattered Copenhagen's customary calm and jolted officials to boost action against violence that has left three dead and 17 wounded in seven months.

Copenhagen -- A grenade tossed into a cafe, gunfire in the street, dead bodies splayed on the pavement, residents living in fear -- all sounds out of sync with the medieval cobbled streets and copper roofs of the Danish capital.

But a bloody gang war between bikers and the youth of immigrant origin has shattered Copenhagen's customary calm and jolted officials to boost action against violence that has left three dead and 17 wounded in seven months.

Two more attacks this week -- one Friday using a hand grenade -- heightened alarm, even if police would not immediately link them to gangs.

"We won't accept this settling of scores between gangs that is frightening the population," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this month before stepping down as prime minister to become NATO secretary general.

Officials, he vowed, would "take all necessary means to halt the escalating violence," as Copenhagen's police chief promised to use "Al Capone-like tactics" to go after the gangs.

The battle over drug sales, revenge and wounded honour pits Hells Angels bikers and their offshoot called AK81 against gangs of mainly second and third-generation immigrant youths.

The long-simmering conflict exploded into full-blown war last August, after a 19-year-old man of Turkish origin named Osam Nuri Dogan, who was armed and wearing a bullet-proof vest, was executed on the street.

His body was riddled with 25 bullets in front of a Copenhagen pizza parlour.

A member of AK81 suspected of the killing was arrested but quickly released for lack of evidence.

Since then, violent acts of retaliation have become almost a daily occurrence in the capital -- and raised concern of fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment in a country long sceptical of Muslims where tightening immigration has been the cornerstone of government policy.

An odious attack'

Early Friday, an unknown assailant launched a grenade at a packed cafe patronized by bikers in Christiania, Copenhagen's giant squat and repair of free spirits and marginals since the 1970s. Four were wounded, including a 22-year-old man whose cheek was ripped out by the blast.

"It was an odious attack... and a miracle that no one was killed," a city deputy police commissioner, Boris Jensen, told AFP.

It came a week after another attack in Christiania in which an AK81 member shot and seriously wounded a 30-year-old man in the stomach. Tabloids said it was gangs settling scores but police, again, would not confirm this.

The majority of attacks -- including one Wednesday in which police said "two men on a motorcycle" shot and wounded a 29-year-old man of Egyptian-Eritrean descent -- have occurred in the heavily immigrant Noerrebro neighbourhood.

The sound of gunfire there has become all too common but residents were shocked out of complacency two months ago when three separate shootings in as many days killed two people with no links to gangs and wounded four others.

Protesters dressed in mourning as for a funeral have repeatedly marched through the capital demanding a "gun-free zone" in Noerrebro so people can take a walk "without worrying about being killed by a stray bullet".

Rasmussen personally visited a Noerrebro school in early April to try to calm nerves. "You shouldn't have to have a knot of fear in your stomach when you go outside," he told a worried 16-year-old.

Police have dramatically increased their presence in trouble zones.

Parliament, meanwhile, has scheduled a major hearing on the gang war on April 29 and the justice ministry is preparing a draft law to bolster legal action.

The bill, which parliament is expected to approve before summer recess, will "lead to a doubling of penalties for certain types of serious crimes committed in connection with the retaliatory attacks between gangs," said Justice Minister Brian Mikkelsen.

It would also dramatically increase jail time for possession of illegal weapons and give police more leeway in tapping phones and holding suspects in custody.

'We will give them no peace'

"We will give them no peace," Copenhagen chief police inspector Per Larsen told AFP, saying more than 200 illegal weapons had been seized from gang members in recent months.

"We're going to be after them, put pressure on them, use Al Capone-like tactics and cooperate with the tax authorities to stop their illegal sources of financing, which have been keeping this war going," he said.

The attacks have raised the spectre of a repeat of a gang war that raged in the 1990s, which left 11 people dead.

"The gangs have recruited a lot in recent months," said Copenhagen police chief Jens Henrik Hoejbjerg.

He said nearly 80 different groups of bikers and immigrant-origin young people, or a total of 944 people, have been under police surveillance, though he said the city's true number of gang members -- most of them bikers -- was probably closer to 1,500.

Already in 2008, at least 76 of the 167 shootings registered in Denmark, mainly in Copenhagen, were directly linked to gangs. A year earlier, the Scandinavian country had only 28 shootings, under half of which were attributed to gangs.

Some fear the gang violence could fan racial hostility, as a March 11 YouGov Zapera poll showed that 74 percent of Danes felt "immigrants" were primarily responsible for the gang wars.

"This is no longer just a conflict about money and power but ... between those who feel profound hatred towards 'immigrants' and those who feel the same way towards 'racists'," Michael Hviid Jacobsen, a criminologist at the University of Aalborg, told AFP.

And this "explains the ease with which the two sides have been recruiting," he said.

Jacobsen partly blames politicians and the media, saying they tend to use the term "immigrant" for anti-biker gang members even though most are Danish-born from families who immigrated two or three generations ago.

Others point the finger at police.

"The police only focus on the darkies as if we were responsible for everything," Hassan, a Noerrebro teenager who refused to give his last name, told AFP.

Police roundly reject the accusation.

"It's absurd -- we don't discriminate," said chief police inspector Larsen. "We are also putting pressure on the bikers, searching them too. Our goal is to end this war, that's all."


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