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Romanians Suspicious of Police Raids

March 28, 2000

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ Call it the Romanian version of sweeps week: Scenes of police swarming through marketplaces and smashing down doors are dominating TV screens across this country.

``Operation Cleanup,″ which began March 20 and has now ended, led to the arrests of thousands of suspects on charges ranging from illegally hawking food and cigarettes to pimping, prostitution and murder.

The crackdown comes after a decade of rising crime since the end of communist rule, especially in big cities. Corruption has become more obvious, hand-in-hand with diminished respect for authorities.

But some Romanians wonder whether the show of police strength was a vote-gaining operation ahead of fall elections. The five-party governing coalition is trailing in polls and is often accused of bickering and indecision.

``The crackdown is too late,″ said postman Nicolae Ionita, 33. He said he believes corruption ``started at the top and is officially maintained.″

Film crews accompanied police on the raids, helping lead to the allegations that the operation was mostly for show. Television footage of officers leaping out of cars to arrest wrongdoers and kicking down doors to arrest allegedly dangerous suspects has been aired frequently.

``It is just a cheap spectacle to trick the voter at the eve of the electoral campaign,″ the daily newspaper Evenimentul Zilei said.

Brig. Gen. Iosif Panduru of the Bucharest police said Tuesday that the raids have stopped because of budgetary constraints and overworked officers.

Panduru said the interior ministry had to pay out an extra $355,000 during the operation, and police officers worked 12 to 14 hours daily. He said police had apprehended 760 people and were investigating 650 violent crimes.

Police claim Bucharest is controlled by 50 ``crime families″ who deal in prostitution, extortion and car theft, but no statistics to support the claim have been released. That has led to a degree of skepticism among Romanians, who like others in the Balkans thrive on conspiracy theories and display deep cynicism to any statement from those in authority.

``Bucharest is hardly under the control of organized crime rings,″ said human resources manager Ileana Somardolea, 48. ``I for one am not worried about going out at night. I have traveled to Madrid and is it more dangerous there.″

However, many feel crime is on the rise. Older people say they feel Bucharest, a city of 3 million, has gotten less safe in the past few years.

``My friends won’t come and see me after 5 p.m.,″ said Sofia Popescu, 74, returning from the market with mineral water and pork liver. ``And as for me, I won’t get into the elevator with a stranger any more.″