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Hungary's Gypsies targeted in deadly attacks

THOUSANDS of mourners headed today to the funeral of Jeno Koka, the fifth Hungarian Gypsy shot to death in a series of crimes police say may have been committed by the same group.

There have been at least seven similar attacks since July 2008 against Roma - as Gypsies often preferred to be called. All involved shotguns and firebombs and were carried out at the edge of small villages near a major highway that provides a quick escape route.

Police are offering up to 50 million forints (US$225,000) for information about the crimes and have boosted the number of officers working to solve the attacks from 70 to 100.

"These are professional killers," said Justice Minister Tibor Draskovics. "But neither I nor the police will rest until we catch them."

Police say they have found DNA samples believed to belong to the culprits at some of the crime scenes and have widened the circle of suspects to include the military and other security forces.

While they do not rule out racism, police so far have been unable to pinpoint a motive behind the strikes, a fact which irks many who say the reasons are obvious.

"This is the umpteenth such assassination and so far police have been unable to catch even one offender," said the Roma Civil Rights Foundation, stressing that personal or business matters and any kind of revenge could be eliminated as the possible causes of Koka's murder.

Roma make up about 6 percent of Hungary's 10 million population and many are among its poorest and least educated citizens. Poverty among Roma has increased since the end of communism and the closure or privatization of the large state companies that guaranteed work.

But with unemployment and economic problems on the rise among all Hungarians and small but vocal extreme right-wing parties like Jobbik focusing on public security, Roma could be seen as the scapegoats for Hungary's economic woes.

Even the ombudsman for civil rights, Mate Szabo, said Hungarians needed to be warned about "Gypsy crime," petty thefts committed by Roma as a form of subsistence. Szabo later recanted his statements and was reprimanded by President Laszlo Solyom.

The rise of Jobbik and its militant Hungarian Guard and the increased attention on crimes committed both by and against Roma are said to stem partly from a 2006 incident in the eastern town of Olaszliszka in which a 45-year-old Hungarian teacher was beaten to death in front of his two young daughters after slightly injuring a Roma girl with his car.

Several men from the town, including some of the Roma girl's relatives, are suspected of the murder.

While there are two Hungarian Roma in the European Parliament, domestically Roma parties and organizations have been plagued by fragmentization and charges of corruption, receiving far less than 1 percent of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary election.

Although their integration is always listed as one of the country's most pressing issues, Roma remain mostly outside the Hungarian mainstream.


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