Boys brag of murderous crime that receives no punishment

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MOSCOW - The Yakovlev brothers - aged 10, 12, 13 and 14 - have shaven heads and bright eyes. They live in indescribable squalor in a concrete wasteland suburb and say they have killed at least half a dozen people. But only the eldest, Andrei, has been locked up on suspicion of murder and will probably be brought to trial.

Vitya, Dima and Volodya have bragged to police that they beat a drunken tramp to death in a badly lit underpass. Police said the crime was carried out with unusual cold-bloodedness and savagery. Whether or not they are responsible, they are too young for Russian law to touch them. All responsibility for crimes committed by under-14s passes to the parents. And the Yakovlevs' mother, Svetlana, hunched in her dressing gown over a stinking nest of cushions and ashtrays, has been certified as mentally ill.

'This is a very unusual family,' said militia inspector Tatyana Potapkina, who deals with under-age criminals in the northern Moscow suburb of Strogino. 'There's nothing we can do to persuade their mum those kids have committed any murders.'

Crime, including juvenile law-breaking, has soared in post-Communist Russia and President Boris Yeltsin has said fighting it is one of the top priorities of his government. But so far his promise has produced no tangible results.

The Yakovlev boys have boasted to police about five other killings, but the police are sceptical about some of the claims.

Children of the post-Soviet under-class, the Yakovlevs were regularlEy sent into Moscow city centre instead of to school to help eke out their widowed mother's meagre pension. They would hang out nTHER write errorear the first Moscow McDonald's, hoping to cheat gullible - and rich - foreigners. 'All we have to live on is my pension and my child allowance,' said Mrs Yakovlev. 'If they've been robbing and murdering people, how come we live so bad?'

The boys have just spent a few weeks in a juvenile detention centre where they ate imported food such as bananas which they could not afford at home. A parliamentary deputy is helping the mother get a bigger pension.

The walls of their four-room high-rise flat are covered in green-brown mould. Mrs Yakovlev and the children still living in the flat - she has seven, but two are in detention and one has left home - share one room. They sleep on the floor and rent out the rest.

The father, a factory worker, died of diphtheria 18 months ago. Shortly before his death he had taken to the bottle and started beating the children so badly they ran away and lived rough at railway stations for three months. Asked if they might have travelled to the town of Oryol at that time - the boys claim to have committed three murders there then, but police say they invented the killings - Mrs Yakovlev said she didn't know where they had been.

One of the killings the boys boast about was at Kursk station, where they say they murdered a tramp. He had been informing on other tramps sleeping at the station to the railway authorities, who wanted to stop homeless people camping there.

The boys also say they killed a fare- dodger at their local station. He had been caught by a ticket inspector they were friendly with, but refused to pay his fine.

Vitya said he and his brothers had murdered the 60-year-old tramp whose violent death in February landed their brother Andrei in jail. 'Yes,' he said, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke in his mother's direction. She smiled. 'You want to know what happened? Ask Volodya.' In the event, it was the mother who told the story.

'Volodya doesn't smoke at home, you see,' she confided. 'But he does smoke on the street. And he asked a tramp at Pushkinskaya (the metro station near McDonald's) for a light.

'The bloke refused, and kicked him, see? Kicked him hard. He was beating Volodya up. So the boys had to defend themselves. With their feet. With paving stones. It was them that called the ambulance, though, and they sat with him till the doctor came.

'It was only once the doctor got there that it turned out the old geezer was dead,' she added mournfully.

(Photograph omitted)