Flat Earth: Snow White and the seven hoods

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ST PETERSBURG, 3am. A weary traffic policeman spied a battered Zhiguli (Russia's equivalent of a Trabant) slowly towing a driverless Mercedes through the empty, potholed streets. Another car thief, he thought, as he waved down the driver, a tipsy workman moonlighting as a night taxi. 'What've you got in here?' said the policeman, opening a door of the Mercedes to find the seats covered by a tarpaulin. Underneath were the corpses of seven men with gunshot wounds.

That was last month. On Friday, police admitted they were holding six men 'pending an investigation', but gave no details. The city's business community, if that's what you can call its growing collection of racketeers, knows all . . .

When one group of thugs heard that a certain 'entrepreneur' was under pressure from another group of heavies they offered to solve his problem for dollars 5,000. Done, said the entrepreneur, who invited his tormentors for talks in his office. Waiting inside were his new friends with automatic rifles. They opened fire - three dead. Later four more thugs, guards of the first three, entered the office looking for their colleagues - bang bang.

The 'friends' packed the corpses into the Mercedes the recently alive racketeers had arrived in, hailed the Zhiguli, told the driver the limo had broken down and paid him 15,000 roubles (dollars 8) to tow it to a scrapyard.

'Yes, it's true,' Boris Larionov, the city's prosecutor, told our agent in St Petersburg, 'the driver was innocent so we let him go. He had no idea what he was towing.'

NO CLAIMS BONUS

In Moscow, meanwhile, we discover at first hand how the mafia works. A local handyman who attends to our agent's apartment decided to broaden his business and imported a tea-chest of secondhand electrical fittings from Turkey. He advertised them for sale in Moscow's equivalent of Exchange and Mart, giving his address to prospective customers.

A few days later he was visited by two men wearing sheepskin coats - the Russian equivalent of spats and a fedora hat - offering him 'insurance'. The service included a car policy: in the event of an accident, the men in sheepskin will 'ask' the other driver to pay their client compensation.

The handyman told his visitors he was already covered and is waiting to see if they return with a counter-offer.

TAKES THE BISCUIT

Down south in Serbia, news reaches us of an amazing publicity coup for British biscuit manufacturers. It could have gone hideously wrong. Among a collection of EU food parcels were packets of British biscuits - made in 1962.

This was another example of foreign attempts to poison peace-loving Serbs, screamed the more xenophobic of Belgrade's newspapers. Earlier examples of treacherous aid included 200 tons of beans from Bulgaria which were found to be unfit for human consumption and, most suspicious of all, a World Food Programme consignment of more beans from Turkey, the Slavs' arch-enemy.

When the 32-year-old British mixed assortment was about to be served in the capital's tea- rooms, the Association for the Protection of Consumer Rights swooped. And its verdict? Yum, yum.

'I'm not surprised,' said a spokesman for United Biscuits, our biggest manufacturer. None the less, we thought we heard him whisper to himself that it was probably a misprint on the packet.

RUM RABBIT

Anyone who has had thelawn pock-marked by burrowing knows what destructive pests rabbits can be. Given a gun, we at Flat Earth would shoot them as fast as they put an ear above ground, much in the way that our former colleague Lynn Barber has announced open season against squirrels in her garden in north London.

In Australia, where rabbits cause damage of around Adollars 90m ( pounds 42m) to farmland every year, a re-education campaign is under way to change the animal's cuddly harmless image to one of a fanged foreign monster that destroys native plants and crowds out the 'non-immigrant' wildlife.

As Easter approaches, the Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation of Australia wants to replace the bunny with the bilby. Come again? The bilby is an endangered marsupial also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot and can be found, if you're lucky, in arid central Australia. It's furry with a long snout and tail and, as our illustration shows, looks more like a rat than a rabbit. Like many Australians, these animals sleep standing up and are largely carnivorous.

We are told that in Adelaide this Easter there are more chocolate bilbies on sale than rabbits. Well done, South Australia.

SMOKE SIGNALS

From Easter to Passover: we hear of a new conflict in Jersualem - this time between rabbis. The war is being fought, of all things, over smoking.

On one side is Rabbi Moshe Blau, who certified in newspaper adverts that a brand of Israeli cigarettes was kosher, thus guaranteeing they could be smoked by orthodox Jews during the religious festival.

On the other side, reaction from anti-smoking rabbis was thunderous: 'It's like giving a kosher certificate to pork,' said one. 'Like putting a stumbling- block in front of the blind,' said another. As the air became thick with kosher grapeshot we were told everyone was heading for their lawyers.

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