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Biker wars dredge up something rotten in the state of Denmark

The Angels and Bandidos are fighting across Scandinavia with anti- tank rockets and grenades.
The mean machine is laying low in Elsinore, but everyone in Denmark knows that the war is far from over.

Until the past few days the worst violence experienced by the people of this small tourist town on Denmark's northern coast has been the drunken punch-ups with the Swedes around the Kronborg Castle on Saturday nights. Now there are fears that the Bandidos biker gang is moving into Elsinore big-time. They are armed to fight Hell's Angels - not with the slings and chains of yesteryear - but with anti-tank rockets and grenades.

In the Hamlet Hotel there are rumours that the group have taken over the Ritz Bar along the road. "We don't mind, they are nice people," said a teenager, who didn't wish to give her name. Nobody in Elsinore wants to give their name. "As long as they just kill each other and not us, its OK" they say in the bars.

"I think the Bandidos are going to win. They're the meanest," said a young man queueing for the ferry across the sound to Helsingborg in Sweden, where anti-tank rockets blasted a rocker club last month. "Hurt one of us and we all bleed - that's what they believe. That's their honour code."

Just along the road, a victim of Elsinore's new honour code lies bleeding in the hospital. Morten Traeben, a Bandidos leader, lost a leg this week, after the enemy Hell's Angels lobbed a grenade into his cell at an open prison. The brothers hit back fast, opening fire on a Hell's Angel, Paluden Jacobsen, at his girlfriend's home in Copenhagen. "What would you do if someone chopped your brother?" asked Jim, the Bandidos "spokesman", giving an interview by mobile phone. "We have our honour and our pride. We are one big family."

Behind the pristine box hedges of suburban streets across the country, ordinary Danes seem not to know what to make of the violence which is shattering the image of their pristine land.

The Nordic biker wars, which have been raging for months in Sweden, Finland and Norway, killing two and wounding many more, spread to Denmark three weeks ago with a bloody shoot-out at Copenhagen airport. A Hell's Angel returning from a rockers' convention in Helsinki was shot dead in a hail of automatic rifle fire outside the arrivals hall by members of the Bandidos. Since then the gangs have rocketed each others' "clubs", and the Danish press revealed this week that huge arsenals of weapons have been stolen from army stores in Denmark and Sweden.

The war has its roots back in the 1970s, when Denmark's Hell's Angels, formed in the image of their idols in Oakland, California, were threatened by a rival biker gang known as Bullshit. Eleven died in that conflict before the Angels emerged victorious, keeping the peace on the streets of Denmark until 1993, when the Bandidos, an offshoot of another American gang, were first formed. Police estimate the gangs to be about 50 strong, but their "supporters" are numbered in the thousands and they have world- wide connections. In the past year the two gangs have formed chapters in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The police in Denmark were clearly caught off guard by the airport shooting, but now have no illusions about the danger the gangsters pose. They are drug barons fighting for control of a growing narcotics empire. Drug use is not legal in Denmark, but enforcement is "liberal", and the gangs are now feeding off a growing Scandinavian market.

The biker gangs of Scandinavia are the newest face of organised crime, armed and backed by support gangs in the US, France, Germany and Britain. "In my opinion we have a very serious problem. These people have international connections with major organised crime," said Mor- gens Sorenson, head of Denmark's drugs intelligence unit.

In the US and Canada the same gangs are now fighting to the death. In Canada, 28 lives have been lost in the past 18 months. Jean Pierre Levesque, a Canadian police chief, warned this week that the battles which have started in Scandinavia will spread to the rest of Europe: "We are facing a lethal situation."

In Denmark, a country which likes to believe it has achieved an ideal balance between liberal mores and social discipline, the biker wars have presented some uncomfortable truths. There are those who like to think the wars are just a gruesome pantomime played out by latter day "Vikings". Jim the Bold and Kim the Long, their steroid-pumped torsos squeezed into bikers' black leather, will strut the pages of the tabloid press for a week or two and then be gone, say some. But the search for explanations - and solutions - has only just begun.

Prosperous Denmark, with a population of just 5 million has no "inner city" strife to speak of, no obvious seedbeds for disaffection. These gangsters are men with money in their late twenties, many with families and jobs. "Bandidos Place" - the gang's clubhouse - sits in the midst of a neat industrial estate in the suburban town of Stenlose, where the streets are so clean they might have been washed with antiseptic.

At the "Angels Place" in Copenhagen, the bikers have put away the Harley- Davidsons for fear of being identified, and come and go instead in four- wheel drive vehicles, dressed in body-building gear, with mobile phones stuffed in their pockets. "Hell's Angels" is daubed in giant letters on a tall chimney above the club-house, and a feathered Viking helmet is displayed by the gate, where young mothers walk past to a neat block of flats. "It's the way they chose to live their lives. Some of them are nice people," says a policeman, casually searching the back of an Angel's Silverado truck for weapons.

Jim, the Bandidos spokesman, explained that it was all about being in a "family". He travels the world, "and I know there will be brothers there to look after me. I have a family, but the brothers are my family too. They say we are into drugs, but that's not true. We are only interested in respect - respect for our brothers everywhere."

These Danish men are fighting to retrieve their machismo, in a society now dominated by women, according to some analysts who are struggling for explanations. "These are men without a role model. Everywhere today they see women are more powerful than them," says Ambro Cragh, a journalist on the newspaper Politiken, who has studied the phenomenon. "That's bullshit," scoffed "respectable" bikers of Denmark's Harley-Davidson club, which has 2,000 members. "They should be in jail. They try to steal our bikes."

The police are coming under increasing attack for arresting only a handful of the gangsters, and treating the armed criminals with kid gloves. The 50 Hell's Angels known in Denmark today sport between them 829 convictions for crimes ranging from rape and murder to drug trafficking and extortion.

Jorgen "Jonke" Nielson is serving time in an open jail for murdering a Bullshit leader in the 1980s, but is released each weekend to talk to schools and clubs about "my life as an Angel". His books are on sale at the Angels "Defence Club" in central Copenhagen, where money is raised for the brothers in jail. The current police strategy is to try to "mediate" a truce among the gangs, but nobody gives that half a chance. "It's a free society. We have freedom of speech," said one police officer outside the Angels clubhouse. "What can we do?"

Yet the biker gangs are idolised by many youths, their arcane codes feared - if not respected - and their drugs consumed in ever greater quantities. In small towns like Elsinore, young people say there is a ready market for ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines. "The gangs control it," said a youth selling posters under the brooding castle ramparts.

In the bars they talk about "who's in, who's out" in the rocker wars. A young man with the short cropped hair of his gangster heroes explained: "We all know that this is a fight to the death, and we are all watching to see who wins. The Angels are mean, but they are on their way out this time and they know it. The Bandidos want all the territory. They want respect, and they know how to get it."