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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Highway Robbers Terrorizing Truck Routes

The ancient metier of highway robbery is alive and well in Russia and, as often as not, dressed in the uniform of a traffic policeman or customs official.

Shipping companies that transport goods from ports on Russia's Western borders to Moscow say the thieves are sophisticated, informed about trucks and their payloads, and costing the shippers dear. Finnish truckers, for example, say they have lost 54 shipments over the past three years to robbers in Russia.

"Security is a big problem on the highway," said Yari Gronlund, the director of Huolintakeskus, a Finnish haulage company that ships more than 2,000 consignments a month from Finland, Germany and the Far East. The company lost two trucks to armed robbers on the Vyborg-Moscow highway last summer, Gronlund said.

Beyond the theft of expensive cargoes, at least two Finnish truckers have been killed since 1994 and two are now reported missing, according to a trade union official. One Dutch driver was reported missing Oct. 15, a Dutch Embassy spokesman said Friday.

Improving drivers' security on Russian highways was one of the issues raised during a two-day strike by Finnish transport workers last month, which called renewed attention to the trials Western companies have in getting their goods to market here.

Although the Finns have raised the biggest fuss and the European Commission has put Russian highway safety on its agenda, industry officials say the problem is also grave on some routes to Western Europe and Central Asian highways such as those connecting Russia and Kazakhstan.

An official with the Dutch transporter Berghaus said his company had been victimized twice by hijackers posing as the recipients of the shipments. The trucks had come through Poland and were held up near the Moscow customs points. guards for shipping routes from European and Far Eastern borders as well as within the CIS. "Robbers often know when shipments are arriving and what they are carrying," said Yampolev, adding that electronics are a particularly attractive cargo for bandits.

"The guards know when and where to stop, which stretches are particularly dangerous and so on," he said. "And in case of an attack, they are armed to the teeth."

The magnitude of the problem has evoked concern among law enforcement agencies. More than 200 road bandit gangs have been busted so far this year, an Interior Ministry official said, adding that officers had seized a large number of "sophisticated weapons." Another official said Russia is considering inviting assistance from the pan-European Interpol force, although it has not done so yet.

Vladimir Donskoi, a representative of the Russian division of the International Association of Transporters, AFMAP, said his group is giving drivers copies of police and customs identification cards to allow them to verify their legitimacy. In cooperation with the GAI, the association also is working to create a network of heavily guarded stopping points on all Russian highways, including places for night stopovers, said Donskoi.

Despite increasing measures to foil attacks, however, Yampolev of Business Security Service said robbers are devising new modus operandi because most shippers are now on their guard.

Gronlund said his firm had not lost any trucks to armed robbers this year -- instead, two Huolintakeskus vehicles fell prey to a new form of crime where consignments are stolen using forged delivery and consignment documents.

Robbers meet truckers disguised as customs officers and hand over forged delivery notes before taking away the cargo. Other methods involve presenting false identification purporting to be the militia or the consignee.

Yampolev said shipments on any route can fall prey to hijacking. Most attention, however, has been drawn to Finland, a major conduit for Western trade to Russia. Fifteen thousand tons of freight from various European nations crossed the Russian-Finnish border in 1995, said Reymondet, adding that this represented a 60 percent increase over the previous year.

Finnish insurance companies have been hit for more than 20 million Finnish marks ($4.3 million) in recent claims, said a report in the Insurance/Investment Post magazine earlier this year.

Timo Poroskorbi, vice president of the cargo insurance department of the Finnish insurance company Pohjola, said his company had lost three shipments to Russian bandits this year.

"This [robbery of shipments] doesn't only happen in Russia," Poroskorbi said in a telephone interview from Helsinki. "But it is on the rise in Russia."

Insurance companies are charging higher premiums for insuring goods and trucks headed for Russia than for those sent to other European nations, he said.

Tuula Oras, head of the international division of the Association of Finnish Transporters, doubted the situation would improve in the near future.

The reason, she said, voicing a belief held by many in the industry, is that in many cases customs officials, border guards and militia are hand in glove with the robbers, and pass on information about "loads that are worth stealing."

Inspector Yury Belov of the Special Missions department of the GAI agreed that information leaks could be the key factor behind the crimes and said the auto inspectorate's attempts to trap bandits with the help of decoy trucks had proved fruitless.

"The robbers always seem well informed about the nature of the cargoes," Belov said, adding that leaks also could come from employees of the truckers or of the firms sending or insuring the loads. Dealing with fake customs and police officers will be difficult, he said, because of the relative ease in obtaining false documents in Russia.

Still, many firms use security only when they ship valuable cargo such as alcohol or electronics. Jussi Kuutsa, the manager of the department store Stockmann, said trucks delivering supplies for his company found safety in numbers, travelling in a long convoy from the Finnish border all the way to Moscow.