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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Newsweek Hit by Armed Extortion Bid

In what appears to be the first gangland extortion attempt against a Western news organization in Moscow, three racketeers have hijacked a car from the bureau of the U.S. magazine Newsweek and demanded protection money, staff at the bureau said Thursday.


Newsweek translator Vladimir Sverdlov, whom the attackers threatened to shoot during the incident Wednesday, said the three men demanded money, seemingly unaware that the Newsweek bureau was not a business venture.


"It must have been some weird mistake or the devil knows what," he said in bewilderment.


Andrew Nagorski, the acting bureau chief, said Newsweek had informed the U.S. Embassy's security service and the Russian Foreign Ministry's information department about the incident. He said Foreign Ministry officials promised they would notify the Interior Ministry and that the appropriate government organs would do their best to investigate.


Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigory Karasin confirmed that the ministry was looking into the details of the incident, which he said had not been a hold-up.


"It was an unpleasant, unsanctioned claim by some unpleasant people," he said. "We will keep the embassy and the Newsweek bureau informed on the progress of our investigation."


A local police official contacted Thursday said he was unaware of the attack.


"It's the usual thing: we'll get an official request from the embassy in about a week, and whom will we catch then?" said Yevgeny Ilyin, acting head of the crime investigation department for the area in which the bureau is located.


Newsweek said they had not contacted the police directly after the attack. Ilyin, who learned about the incident from a Moscow Times reporter, said his unit would investigate the matter.


According to Sverdlov, the racketeers first attacked a bureau staffer heading back to Moscow from Sheremetyevo airport Wednesday in a Volvo car with a Newsweek sticker on the rear window.


Sverdlov said three men driving an Alfa-Romeo car forced the Newsweek car to the roadside. They then showed the driver a gun and demanded he take them to his company's office. One of the attackers remained in the Alfa-Romeo and the other two got into the Volvo.


The Newsweek staffer complied. The two cars entered the guarded compound on Kutuzovsky Prospekt where the Newsweek bureau is located, and the two men who had ridden in the Volvo went into the office and demanded to see "the director," Sverdlov said.


Nagorski was out doing an interview. The Newsweek office manager told the men to be quiet, and one of them yelled, "Shut up! Do you know who you're talking to?" Hearing the noise, Sverdlov came into the front office from his room two doors away.


"What's going on, brother?" Sverdlov inquired. "Who are you calling brother?" one of the men retorted. "You mean you're a tough guy? Then let's have a shootout."


"I told him I am just a peaceful translator," Sverdlov said. "I asked the guys to go outside and have a cigarette with me and explain what they wanted."


After the three men went outside, it turned out that Sverdlov had left his cigarettes at the office, but the racketeers would not let him get them, fearing he would call the police. Instead, they offered Sverdlov one of their cigarettes.


The men introduced themselves as members of the Solntsevo group, an armed gang that terrorizes the southwestern part of Moscow, and asked Sverdlov whether Newsweek was interested in hiring them as its krysha (roof) -- the term for a protection gang.


"I explained to them for half an hour that we aren't a commercial firm," Sverdlov said. "But they couldn't seem to get it inside their heads."


According to Sverdlov, the men repeatedly asked him who was the Russian partner in the company, and when he insisted that the Newsweek bureau was not a joint venture, one of the men asked in frustration, "But somebody has to be making money on this setup, right?"


Even after Sverdlov assured the men that the bureau was not a profitable business, they demanded that he say yes or no to their offer of protection.


"After they asked me about 10 times, I said, 'OK, yes,'" Sverdlov recalled. "I gave them the number of our fax line that we never pick up and they said they would be back."


According to Sverdlov, the racketeers had not been physically impressive. One wore a trademark track suit of the kind sported by many street thugs and the other one had on a loose yellowish sport jacket that could have concealed a gun. Sverdlov said the men threatened to call in the gang's musclemen, known as "bulls," to "blow up" the office if Newsweek refused to pay protection.


Newsweek staffers were at a loss as to why the mobsters had apparently failed to realize they were dealing with a news organization rather than a commercial company.


"Every fool knows the yellow K 004 licence plates mean 'American correspondent'", said Newsweek driver Yuri Tkachev. "And every fool knows there's nothing you can take away from a correspondent except maybe a Parker pen."


Despite the fact that the entrance to the compound on Kutuzovsky Prospekt is guarded by police and a private security agency, the guards only learned about the incident after the men had left. A police captain on duty at the compound gate Thursday said he had taken no action because Newsweek staff had not officially informed him of what had happened.


Alexander Pozdnyakov, a guard with the security firm Atletiko-1, said his firm was aware of the attack but that the unarmed guards could do little to prevent other such incidents in the future.


"I have three kids and no gun. I won't confront these guys and get shot," he said. "All I can do without a gun is maybe stop a drunk from entering, not fight the Solntsevo group."