Denmark uneasy as Angels go to ground

Imre Karacs in Copenhagen on the absence of bikes and leather as the trial begins
Police marksmen in black uniforms crouch on the rooftops. The two main roads running front and back are controlled by checkpoints, while the street exposing the building's most vulnerable aspect is barricaded. Inside this security bubble, a few hundred yards from Copenhagen's royal palace, lies a courthouse.

Nobody is quite sure who is being guarded from whom, but it is a fair assumption that the six young men on trial within, and the reluctant witnesses testifying against them, are all in grave danger. The Danish capital's Eastern courthouse has become the front line in the biker wars that have claimed nine lives across Scandinavia in the past three years. Four Hell's Angels and two aspiring members of the gang are on trial for murdering a member of the rival Bandidos gang and injuring three others at Copenhagen airport eight months ago. Another Bandido was wounded on the same day at Oslo airport.

For most of the past three years, peaceful Denmark seemed quite unable to deal with such unrelenting violence. When the police were finally pushed into action, they found the task so overwhelming that they warned that they could not cope simultaneously with protecting Salman Rushdie, barring the British author from going to Denmark to collect an award last week until the government backed down in the face of a political outcry.

In the light of recent experience, Denmark's harried police must anticipate either an attempt by the Angels to spring their comrades, or an attack by the Bandidos on their foes. Another possibility is that friends of the defendants will try to shoot the witnesses. After last month's missile attack on the Hell's Angels headquarters, which killed two of their members and injured 17 more, anything can happen.

So far, everything has been very quiet - perhaps too quiet. After the latest atrocities, the government ordered the closure of the club houses. The two gangs meekly complied, and then vanished. There are no motorbikes to be seen in Copenhagen or the whole of Denmark. Fearing arrest or retribution from the enemy, Hell's Angels and Bandidos have put away their uniforms and gone underground. Ominously, they have kept away from the trial.

Even the six Angels in the dock have trimmed their hair, had a wash and put on civvies: neat jeans and pressed lumberjack shirts. The only leather in sight are the trousers being worn by a female lawyer. The defendants are held in isolation, and led in one by one every day. Communication among themselves is restricted to boisterous bear hugs and slaps on the back, the flashing of postcards and CDs, and occasional belches to liven up the proceedings. Basking in the admiring gaze of the teenage girls seated in the public gallery, they seem to be rather enjoying themselves.

Their evidence so far has given nothing away. A man with short black hair and tattoos covering his neck and arms refused to confirm that he was a Hell's Angel. He says he has a perfect alibi. At the time of the killing, he was with a friend - but he would not reveal the friend's name. Another defendant appears to have developed complete amnesia about the day the Bandidos were shot from a car parked outside the airport. The police themselves have no idea which Angel fired the bullets, and witnesses are too scared to say.

The authorities are not even sure why the gang rivalry has escalated into such a vicious conflict. It is thought the Hell's Angels controlled the Scandinavian drugs racket - mostly amphetamines and cannabis - until the Bandidos arrived on the scene about three years ago. It is a limited market and the Angels simply could not afford a carve-up.

Now, after so many deaths, the economics have been obliterated by the urge for vengeance. Pride also dictates that one gang must wipe out the other. The police fear that the truce they have imposed will be of the Bosnian variety, allowing the protagonists to return to the battle field with a better class of weapons. The Bandidos used an anti-tank missile in their last attack. You can be sure the Angels will try to top that.