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Greeks snatch urban metal to get through crisis

By COSTAS KANTOURIS and DEREK GATOPOULOS Published: February 12, 2013
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Recent inspections also turned up another 300 meters of stolen cable on a passenger bus headed to Albania, along with a cache of candle holders, snatched from graveyards and loaded onto small trucks, that were stopped and searched at the Greek-Bulgarian border.

Police inspections for stolen metal have now become a priority at the country's 12 main border crossing points.

“We've had (metal) theft in the past, but there's been a spike in the number of cases recently, with a greater number of criminal gangs involved,” Antonis Tzitzis, head of Thessaloniki police's department for crimes against property, said in an interview.

“Before the crisis, we had very few cases of metal theft. Now they are multiplying exponentially,” he said. “Our indications are that many Greeks currently accused of involvement in metal theft had no previous criminal involvement.”

A disused army-built rail bridge network in northern Greece and its 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) steel girders has become a favorite site for thieves.

The bridges have been targeted on at least three occasions, in one case leading to the arrest late last year of a 36-year-old man and two women, aged 36 and 40, as they were removing a bridge support, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Thessaloniki.

Three years of financial crisis and tough austerity measures have pushed Greek unemployment nearing 27 percent, with more than half the country's population aged under age 25 now out of work.

Northern Greece has been hardest hit by the recession, about to enter a sixth year. The border regions of Epirus and Western Macedonia have a jobless rate of more than 28 percent.

Stealing metal, especially higher-priced copper from cables, is adding to problems at the country's loss-making state rail company and other public utilities.

Ordinary scrap metal sells on the black market for about (euro) 1 for 10 kilograms ($.06 per pound), slightly over half the legal rate, while the contraband copper fetches about 40 times that amount — still a huge reduction compared to the cable's market price.

Paraskevas Pourliakas, head of Greece's rail workers association, says about 100 kilometers (more than 60 miles) of cable has been stolen in the last three years, costing the state rail company some (euro) 10 million ($12.8 million).

“They even sever cables with electricity running through them,” Pourliakas said. “It's creating a safety problem for our train and passengers.”


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