Russia gripped by 'epidemic' of murders for mobile phones

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The Independent Online

A spate of murders for mobile phones has prompted Russian authorities to call summit meetings with phone operators after several children, as young as 11, were killed.

At least 13 people are known to have been murdered for their phones so far and thousands of others have been savagely beaten and robbed of them. The authorities say that the problem has become so serious that current levels of mobile phone-related crime have reached "epidemic" proportions.

The criminals' motivation is two-fold, either to acquire an expensive mobile for their own use or to sell it for cash almost immediately to an unscrupulous dealer in second-hand mobile phones.

In Moscow, a meeting between local deputies, the police and mobile phone operators has already been held and another is planned within days. The police want the operators to draw up a shared list of stolen mobiles and to block such handsets from accessing the country's networks, but the mobile phone industry has so far refused.

The Russian daily Novy Izvestia believes the problem has spiralled out of control. "A glance at the reports of mobile phone-related crimes leaves a terrible impression," it said. "It seems that Russia has simply lost its mind."

The list of people killed for their handset is long. In the town of Alexandrov, two teenagers, 14 and 17, murdered an 11-year-old girl, her mother and a neighbour, just to get their hands on a mobile the girl had just been given for her birthday.

They beat the two women to death with metal poles, strangled the girl then set fire to the house to try to conceal the evidence.

In Moscow, a 12 year-old boy, Anton Gabov, was stabbed to death by two schoolmates to whom he had unwisely shown his new acquisition, and in Vyborg, two girls, 11 and 13, were similarly murdered for their telephones.

They are some of the younger victims but the list of people killed for their mobiles includes individuals of all ages from across Russia.

Part of the problem is how phenomenally popular phones have become. Ninety-four million people, out of a total population of 144 million, have them, a figure that is forecast to rise to 100 million by the end of the year, and Mobile Research Group found that more than 24 million handsets were sold in 2004. Thirty-four million are expected to fly off the shelves this year.

"In our country, where the majority of people are unable to display their status through a car or a prestigious job, the only way of standing out from the crowd is through a mobile phone," Novy Izvestia said. "As a result, children, teenagers and frail girls go about with 'little toys' whose price starts at $300 (£164). What can they do against a street hooligan, especially one armed with a knife?"

Official figures show there were 23,584 mobile phone-related crimes in Moscow alone last year of which more than 2,000 involved physical violence. "Mobile phones have become convertible cash," Novy Izvestia said.