Authorities are gaining the upper hand over a growing army of impoverished Czech metal thieves, lured by hefty sums they can earn from scrapyards, capitalising on lax rules on scrap purchases.
Czech 'metal rush' sees theft of trains, bridges and statues
MOST, CZECH REPUBLIC // A middle-aged Czech armed with a screwdriver deftly removes the copper letters spelling out the Hippocratic oath on a plaque at a Czech hospital, only to be nabbed red-handed by police.
The authorities have finally gained the upper hand over a growing army of impoverished Czech metal thieves, lured by hefty sums they can earn from scrapyards and capitalising on lax rules on scrap purchases.
The botched heist took place in Most, a city about 80 kilometres north-west of the capital Prague.
Unemployment in the hardscrabble mining town of some 70,000 was 15.6 per cent in 2011, compared with the national average of 8.6 per cent.
"We have a fresh case each week," says Ludmila Svetlakova, a Most police spokeswoman.
Popular trophies include aluminium road signs, brass plaques and grave ornaments, storm drain covers, a vast array of spouts and pipes as well as TV cables. Statues, church bells and a copper chapel roof are other examples of lucrative booty.
Thieves even stole hundreds of metal memorial plaques from the Second World War-era Nazi concentration camp in Terezin north of Prague in 2008.
In that case, three men were sentenced to three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years in prison for damage amounting to 1.7 million koruna (Dh327,250).
A collector of railway artefacts was dumbfounded when his latest acquisition - a 24-tonne reconstructed antique train engine - vanished into thin air.
Valued at 267,000 Czech koruna, the hulking engine had been hauled away by two men using a pair of horses. They then dismantled it, cut it up, and sold the scrap for less than half the engine's value.
Yet another locomotive disappeared from a train depot in the north of the country last year.
Czech railways have paid a heavy price for the state's failure to sufficiently crack down on metal thieves.
In less than 10 months of last year, they caused damage worth almost 14 million koruna to railway infrastructure, the SZDC company running Czech railway tracks and stations said.
In 2010, the damage exceeded 25 million koruna, rising from almost 20 million koruna in 2009.
A disused railway line in the west of the country lost a four-tonne bridge, and a conductor was once forced to asked passengers to disembark after thieves had stolen traction wires.
To curb the Czech "metal rush," in 2009 lawmakers ordered scrapyards to ask their suppliers to identify themselves, and to wait 48 hours after purchasing works of art, religious and graveyard items and industrial machinery before processing the items.
"Scrapyards can be fined up to one million koruna" for breaking the rules, Michaela Jendekova, the environment ministry spokeswoman, said, admitting that breaches were "difficult to prove" and citing a need for further legislation.
The problems "more or less track the rising prices on the secondary materials market," Ms Jendekova said.
In Horni Jiretin near Most, a scrapyard that is open seven days a week says on its website that it will pay up to 130 koruna for a kilogram of copper, up to 105 koruna for a kilogram of brass, and up to 32 koruna for a kilogram of aluminium.
Generous prices and the willingness of scrapyard owners to turn a blind eye encourage audacity among thieves, who are known to have sold an excavator shovel, steel water sluice gates, a retracting steel panel theatre curtain and even a dismantled industrial production hall.
Metal thieves also plague neighbouring Slovakia and Poland, where a man from the southern city of Wroclaw is facing five years in prison after stealing and cutting up a steam roller.
In contrast, Hungary, also in central Europe, has introduced strict measures that largely curb this type of theft.
Few will sympathise with the metal thieves, except perhaps the four deer who made a swift escape from a safari-type animal reserve in the northern of Chomutov after thieves made off with some fencing.
Fortunately, the bison decided to stay put.