Death on the Danube as mafia gangs fight for Budapest

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The Independent Online
Mystery grenade attacks and mafia-style shootings threaten to shatter Budapest's image as one of the most civilised cities of Central Europe, replete with monuments to centuries of Habsburg rule. The upsurge in violence may even put paid to the country's booming tourist industry, which relies heavily on a growing number of wealthy visitors from Western countries, such as Britain.

The attacks began modestly just under a month ago with the blowing up of a Mercedes car belonging to the owner of a gambling club. Since then, they have spread to restaurants, car showrooms and the city's growing number of striptease clubs. At the same time there have been two shootings - one fatal - of people believed to belong to Hungary's criminal underworld. Police put the violence down to "turf wars" between the many foreign and home-based mafia groups which are now jostling to control the Hungarian capital's sex and gambling rackets. And in an attempt to end their activities, the police have set up a 160-strong task force and offered a 1 million forint (about pounds 4,700) reward for information leading to arrests.

"Crime syndicates fighting for territory are behind these hand-grenade bombings," said Laszlo Garamvolgyi, the police spokesman. "These are demonstrations of force by different criminal groups, both foreign and domestic."

The grenade attacks usually take place in the early hours of the morning and the explosions have caused extensive damage to windows, restaurants and cars. Hungarian media believe the grenades may have come from two crates that disappeared from a military unit late last year. Almost all the grenades used in the more than 30 explosions in Hungary this year have come from former Warsaw Pact stocks.

All Central and East European countries experienced a rapid growth in organised crime following the fall of Communism in 1989, and there is speculation that the latest round of bombings was sparked off by a change of leadership in Budapest's large Russian mafia network, and their decision to "get tough" on rival gangs which hail from the Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria.

Warfare between the rival mafia gangs is believed to have been behind the killing at the beginning of this month of Jozsef Prisztas, an underworld figure shot at point-blank range with a 9mm pistol while sitting in his car, and behind the serious wounding of Csaba Lakatos, a prominent Hungarian racehorse owner who last week was shot three times with a rifle at Budapest's race track.

Hungary's Prime Minister, Gyula Horn, is said to be personally monitoring the police investigation, while Budapest's mayor, Gabor Demszky, has suggested a five-fold increase in spending on police.

The prospect of civilians - and especially foreigners - getting caught up in the mafia crossfire is one that terrifies Hungary's tourist authorities. They recorded more than 30 million visitors to the country in the first three quarters of the year, many of them from Western countries, such as Britain and France.