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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 20:57 GMT 21:57 UK
Police discover Russia thief camp
By Artyom Liss
BBC News Online, Moscow

Russian police have crushed what officials say was the country's first training camp for budding criminals.

In an overnight raid, dozens of teenage students and two of their lecturers - all with an extensive criminal background - were arrested on the outskirts of Uglegorsk, a small town on the island of Sakhalin, in Russia's Far East.

"They obviously took it very seriously," a local police spokesman told the BBC.

"We seized dozens of tents, a field kitchen, a power generator and even hand-written manuals which covered, in fine detail, all aspects of burglary, robbery and swindle."

'Crime manuals'

Setting up camp in one of the country's wildest spots must have seemed a safe bet to leaders of the underworld.

They really put a lot of effort into making the camp look as innocent as possible
Uglegorsk policeman
Sakhalin is scarcely populated even by Russian standards, where small towns are surrounded by hundreds of hectares of untouched taiga only visited by hunters and anglers.

In the Soviet days, some of the nicest spots in the woods would have been occupied by school camps in which elements of boy scout training were combined with ideology drills.

To an outsider, the Uglegorsk camp must have looked exactly like one of these Soviet-style summer camps - young kids running around, teenagers cooking their own meals or singing to the guitar, and adult instructors keeping a very careful eye on all their disciples.

"This was exactly what the older criminals banked on," a police officer with the Uglegorsk crime squad told the BBC.

"They really put a lot of effort into making the camp look as innocent as possible. And if you read the 'crime manuals' these people distributed, you would not even blink an eyelid - they were all written in the language of the underworld, in which usual Russian words always have a second meaning."

'Handy knowledge'

Students at the camp - most of them teenagers between 12 and 18 - were not only taught the skills of professional thieves but also took part in role-play scenarios on subjects ranging from Dealing With the Police to A Life in Prison: How to Make a Good Impression on Your Cellmates.

Cynical as it may sound, police officers in Uglegorsk acknowledge that the latter subject might one day come in very handy for some of the teenagers who were lured into the crime camp - most of its students come from poor families and already have extensive police records.

"Thieves who ran the camp obviously wanted to pass their knowledge on to the young: they were all close to retirement age, and in the Russian tradition, the younger criminals always share their takings with the veterans," the Uglegorsk police officer explained.

"And most of the students at the camp had chosen to take the criminal route long before classes started, anyway - it was just a matter of fine-tuning their skills."

Sakhalin police are now checking other remote areas of the island to find out if more undercover schools of the similar type might still be operating.

"To organise something this big, you need a lot of money and even more managerial skills," a spokesman for the Russian interior ministry told the BBC.

"It is not out of the question that we'll find similar camps in other regions of Russia as well," he said.

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