12 Arrested in Raid on Purse Snatchers

Twelve suspected members of a sophisticated purse-snatching ring were arrested Tuesday morning in southwestern Moscow in a police operation that turned bloody.

One suspect was shot and several others injured in the early morning raid on a gang of barsetochniki, thieves who specialize in stealing barsetki, the small leather handbags used by some men to transport money and documents, police spokeswoman Marina Molokova said.

The suspect was shot as he attempted to ram several police cars forming a barricade with his car at around 10 a.m. on Ulitsa Ordzhonikidze, near the Leninsky Prospekt metro station, but survived and was subsequently hospitalized, Molokova said.

"The would-be criminals attempted to flee the scene in two cars," police spokesman Yevgeny Gildeyev told Interfax. "It was at this time that our special operations officers opened fire on the suspects."

Molokova denied that anyone had been killed in the operation, though an eyewitness who said he walked by the crime scene shortly after the shooting said he saw a man leaning out the door of a grey MG Rover "with a mouthful of dried blood."

"There was an officer standing over him, his face was absolutely gray, and there didn't appear to be any ambulances around," the witness said on condition of anonymity, because he did not want to become involved with the investigation. "I'd be really surprised if he wasn't dead."

Molokova declined to specify in which hospital the suspect who was shot was being treated.

The MG Rover had been struck at least six times by gunfire, with bullet holes in the windshield and grill. Bloody handprints were visible on the steering wheel and the driver's side door.

By 11 a.m., police detectives, plainclothes officers and masked special operations officers armed with machine guns had swarmed a side street in what Molokova said was an effort to secure the scene.

For several hours after the shooting, 11 of the suspects, several of whom had sustained minor injuries during the arrest, stood handcuffed against the wall of a factory building.

One 22-year-old suspect from Georgia, his lips and nose bloodied, stood trembling as police asked him what his business was in Moscow. He replied that he was a businessman but admitted that he had no documents proving his right to work or live in Moscow.

Another suspect, his head covered by a brown wool cap, was shaking violently and enduring the taunts of two plainclothes officers.

"Hey you," one of the officers shouted. "Where do you think you are: a disco?"

Another suspect, apparently unable to move on his own, lay crumpled on the ground beside the other suspects and openly wept as police lifted him from the ground for questioning.

There was one woman among the suspects detained.

The suspects were expected to be formally charged Wednesday, though police had yet to determine Tuesday exactly for what crimes, Molokova said.

Barsetochniki have become such a persistent problem in recent years that police have formed a special unit to combat them, said Igor Tsirulnikov, spokesman for the city police's anti-organized crime department.

The thieves typically work in pairs and target drivers. One distracts the driver by asking for directions while the other leans in and lifts the bag from the car, Tsirulnikov said.

The gangs of purse-snatchers are particularly active on Leninsky Prospekt and Kutuzovsky Prospekt, where wealthier targets tend to live and shop at upscale stores and boutiques, Tsirulnikov said.

The gangs typically consist of 15 to 20 members and are also known to operate near the large malls and retail centers on the city outskirts, Tsirulnikov said.

Many barsetochniki come to Moscow from Georgia and Abkhazia for short stays and return after committing several burglaries, Tsirulnikov said.

A majority of the suspects detained Tuesday were from Georgia or the Caucasus, Molokova said.