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'Whisky robber' wanted by police and PR people becomes a Hungarian folk hero

IT'S THE story that is the stuff of Hollywood, but it was played out on the back streets of Budapest.

The star is a Transylvanian-born ice-hockey player turned bank robber who slugged back a shot of whisky before each of his 27 heists, and who, when finally arrested, escaped from a high-security prison by tying a string of bedsheets.

Attila Ambrus, dubbed the "whisky robber", is Hungary's latest folk hero, admired across the generations for his daring criminal exploits. Celebrated on commemorative T-shirts and badges, and the talk of the country's bars and cafes, Ambrus, who reportedly once even disguised himself as a policeman while robbing a bank, now has his own fan club on the Internet, offering a "whisky robber" screensaver.

Police checkpoints now ring Budapest at night as cars are stopped and searched, and a nationwide manhunt has been launched to try and find Ambrus, 32, although most Hungarians believe he has fled abroad. Few expect that there will be any takers for the reward of one million forints (pounds 2,600) for anyone helping to catch him.

Ambrus, who frequently gave flowers to female cashiers at the banks he robbed, was caught only after he went home to fetch his dog before attempting to flee Hungary.

In a country known both for its love of dogs, and where chivalrous traditions of flowergiving still thrive - as the Hungarian saying goes "no one who likes flowers can be a bad man" - Ambrus is seen as the archetypal thief with a heart of gold.

His lawyer, Gyorgy Magyar, has announced that an American public relations and communications company has offered a large sum to make a film about Ambrus, and his client has been inundated with offers from newspapers and publishers to buy up his life story. Any monies made could be used to compensate banks for their losses.

This week Magyar announced that Ambrus would be the centre of an advertising campaign for a new energy drink. Manufacturers have bought the right to use his client's face for six months. T-shirts, badges and souvenirs are already in production. The drink will be produced by a West European company with a Hungarian partner.

Peter Nagy, general secretary of the Hungarian Advertising Association, told the Hungarian press that while it is unethical for a criminal to appear in advertisements, there is no law against it.

Police officers are dismayed about the widespread support for the whisky robber. "I thought that society was against crime and more co- operative with the police. Ambrus had more possibilities than the average citizen. He could have chosen legal ways," said Geza Jakab, deputy chief of Budapest police.

That the whisky robber's exploits have struck such a chord in the national psyche illuminates the popular resentment among Hungarians against officialdom.

"There is tangible negative resentment in the Hungarian psyche towards the state, most or all state officers and those in power," said Gyorgy Csepeli, a sociology professor.

"It is normal in this post- socialist country to support those who are weaker and who take risks not to pay taxes to the state. Ambrus is looked upon as a hero as he took risks to achieve what he wanted, unlike those in positions of authority who steal and cheat."