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Israel Police Nab Suspected Mob Hit Men

March 9, 2004

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Police offered a rare inside look at Israel’s bloody mob wars Tuesday, saying they arrested four suspected hit men from Belarus and seized a weapons stash in their hideout, including shoulder-held missiles, explosives and silencers.

The father of a legislator and several alleged crime bosses were among the would-be targets of the alleged contract killers, police said.

Israel, with 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is considered a major outpost of Russian organized crime. A recent string of gangland bombings and shootings that have killed or maimed innocent bystanders have put increasing pressure on police.

In December, a bomb aimed at alleged mafia don Zeev Rosenstein _ the seventh attempt on his life _ left him with scratches but killed three passers-by and wounded 18 others in Tel Aviv.

Three days later, the government ordered a crackdown on organized crime. Police said Tuesday that in recent months, they rounded up 41 people on charges such as attempted murder, drug-smuggling, trafficking in women and extortion.

In the biggest catch, detectives last month arrested four men from Belarus and 14 Israelis on suspicions they tried to kill several mob bosses. In the apartment of the suspected hit men in a Tel Aviv suburb, officers found pistols, silencers, assault rifles, anti-tank missiles, explosives, night vision equipment and hand grenades. They also seized disguises and makeup.

``This was a collection with a deadly potential on an unprecedented scale,″ a police statement said.

Tel Aviv Police Chief Yossi Sedbon said there were worrisome signs that Israel’s underworld is taking its cues from Palestinian militants. ``There are the characteristics of terror here,″ Sedbon told Israel TV. ``We found bombs with metal fragments embedded in them, which is typical of terrorist bombs. It worries us a great deal because many bystanders could be injured by a bomb like that.″

The men from Belarus entered Israel from Egypt, and TV reports said they apparently were hired by one of Israel’s crime families to carry out revenge attacks.

The arrests were made public Tuesday after a court-imposed gag order was lifted.

Among the hit men’s apparent targets were Shoni Gavrieli, father of Likud legislator Inbal Gavrieli, and several reputed mob bosses. Shoni Gavrieli has denied reports that he runs a string of illegal gambling houses.

Police said surveillance cameras at a Tel Aviv office complex showed Shoni Gavrieli escaped a January bombing attempt when an explosive device planted on his Mercedes fell off in the parking lot.

Gavrieli denied Tuesday that he was a target. ``There was a bomb but not in my car. It’s like people are saying I have casinos, which I have never had,″ he told Israel Army Radio.

The alleged assassins are also accused of bungled attempts to kill alleged crime boss Yaakov Alperon in December and his brother, Nissim, a month earlier, and a May 2003 attack on Shimon Zrihan, reportedly a key member of a crime family allied with the Alperons.

A Tel Aviv police spokesman would not say who investigators believe hired the men. The police statement spoke only in general terms of an underworld power struggle.

The Belarusian suspects’ lawyer, Revital Sweed, said the police were overreacting.

``The police are completely confused,″ she told the radio. ``They’re trying to link this to a dispute between Assi Abutubul and Shoni Gavrieli, a fight that never was.″

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