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Nordic boom in biker gangs

Hells Angels and immigrant gangs clash; police and citizens struggle to find solutions.

By Tom SullivanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2009

Confrontation: Hells Angels from nearby Sweden and Switzerland were detained near Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2007.

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A growing battle between the Hells Angels motorcycle club and ethnic minority gangs in Denmark and Sweden is prompting renewed concern that long-simmering gang tensions are intensifying amid economic woes and resentment over immigration.

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The Danish capital of Copenhagen saw almost 60 gang-related shooting incidents in the past year, many of them in Nørrebro, just north of the city center. In March, a series of drive-by shootings and assassinations resulted in the deaths of three bystanders and sent shock waves through the city.

Efforts are now under way to boost the crime-fighting abilities of police, as well as address the causes that lead young people into gangs. Recent killings in Nørrebro prompted hundreds of residents to stage an antigang march.

"The violence has really shaken people, and they are wondering when there will be another shooting," says Kim Christensen, chairman of the Nørrebro district council, who led the march. It snaked through traditional turf of the Hells Angels before finishing less than a mile away, near the biker gang's main clubhouse.

"We're not used to this kind of trouble," says Ane Nissen, a student. "Normally, Copenhagen is very quiet and very safe. That's why we need to react now."

Danish police blame the recent surge in gang violence on an attempt by Hells Angels to get the upper hand over gangs consisting of first- and second-generation refugees.

"Hells Angels have been under pressure for a while now," explains Kim Kliver, head of the investigative division of Denmark's national police. "About two years ago, they realized that they were getting old and needed to recruit younger, more ruthless people."

In less than a year, the gang has doubled in size and created a "supporters club" called AK81, made up mainly of ex-convicts with a record for extreme violence. Police believe that victims of recent killings were chosen because they appeared foreign.

"There have always been social problems in this area, but now it's more divided," says Bendt Erik Krøyer, who runs a cultural center in Copenhagen's Blågårds Plads, a cobbled square dominated by social housing for refugees, mainly from the Middle East, and home to one of the warring factions.

This is not the first gang war in the region. The so-called "Nordic Biker War" in the mid-1990s pitted Hells Angels against the Bandidos motorcycle club. It resulted in a dozen murders and almost 80 shootings before a truce was proclaimed.

Danish police reacted to the first biker war by closing gangs' clubhouses and seizing finances. Today, the job is harder: There are at least a half-dozen ongoing gang feuds, and the gangs are harder to identify. A bridge that spans the narrow strait separating Copenhagen from the Swedish city of Malmö is also making it easier for gangs to evade authorities, Mr. Kliver says.

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