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Police arrest man in Swedish immigrant shootings

From left, Detective Borje Sjoholm from the criminal investigation department in Skane, Chief Prosecutor Solveig Vollstad and head of the Malmo police Ulf Sempert talk during a press conference at police headquarters in Malmo, Sweden, Sunday Nov. 7, 2010. Swedish police have arrested a 38-year-old man suspected of shooting at people with immigrant backgrounds in a yearlong terror spree in southern Sweden, officials said Sunday. Investigators said the man, who was not identified, was taken into custody on Saturday on suspicion of murder and attempted murder. From left, Detective Borje Sjoholm from the criminal investigation department in Skane, Chief Prosecutor Solveig Vollstad and head of the Malmo police Ulf Sempert talk during a press conference at police headquarters in Malmo, Sweden, Sunday Nov. 7, 2010. Swedish police have arrested a 38-year-old man suspected of shooting at people with immigrant backgrounds in a yearlong terror spree in southern Sweden, officials said Sunday. Investigators said the man, who was not identified, was taken into custody on Saturday on suspicion of murder and attempted murder. (AP Photo/Scanpix/Claudio Bresciani)
By Karl Ritter and Jan M. Olsen
Associated Press / November 7, 2010

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MALMO, Sweden—Lang Conteh thought the two loud cracks were fireworks from the nightclub. He was in high spirits, stepping out of a taxi with two friends to join the summer party.

Then he spun around and saw his Jamaican friend on the ground. A bullet had grazed his trouser leg, ripping a cell phone and ID card from his pocket. Conteh still didn't understand what had happened.

"You didn't hear the gunshots?" his friend asked, shocked.

"No," said Conteh, a 41-year-old from Gambia. "This is fireworks."

"I come from Jamaica and I know when I hear gunshots," his friend replied.

Police say the June 26 attack, which Conteh described to The Associated Press, is among about 15 shootings of immigrants linked to a lone gunman over the last year. The victims have been shot at by bus stops, in their cars, through the window of a gym. One died, several were wounded and a climate of fear blanketed Malmo, Sweden's third-largest city.

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The shootings come amid growing tensions over immigration in Sweden. The far-right Sweden Democrats entered Parliament for the first time in Sept. 19 elections, winning 20 of the 349 seats.

Their support is strongest in southern Sweden, including pockets of Malmo where some ethnic Swedes blame the high crime rate on the influx of immigrants from the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. Forty percent of Malmo's 300,000 residents are first- or second-generation immigrants.

While investigators won't speculate on the motive, Swedish media have drawn parallels to a racist gunman who terrorized immigrants in Stockholm in the early 1990s. Dubbed "the laser-man" because of the laser sight he sometimes used, John Ausonius evaded capture for nearly a year. Once caught, he was convicted of one murder and nine attempted murders and is now serving a life sentence at a high-security prison.

"There is a lot of fear. People are afraid to go out at night, in the morning and even during the day," Bejzat Becirov, head of the Islamic center that runs Malmo's mosque, said in an interview.

On Dec. 31, a shot was fired into an office inside the Islamic center's building. Becirov said the bullet ricocheted off a flower pot before hitting a desk cabinet.

"Had the flower pot not been there, it would have hit my employee," Becirov said. "He would have gotten it in the back of his head."

Police confirmed the shooting, but not yet any link to the serial gunman.

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Malmo residents only half-joke when they compare their city to Chicago in the 1920s. Before the serial shooter, a blood-soaked feud between crime clans with Balkan roots dominated the headlines.

A well-known member of one clan was murdered at a gas station, where the killer -- now serving an 18-year prison term -- dragged him out of a black Volvo and buried 11 bullets in his body. A top member of the opposing clan was then gunned down on a busy square in downtown Malmo. Other shootings have been linked to the feud, which is still running.

With all that going on, the first attack later attributed to the serial shooter appeared related to Malmo's gangland violence.

On Oct. 10 last year, a 21-year-old convicted drug smuggler on furlough from prison was shot in the head in a parked car. He was hospitalized for a month with a bullet lodged in his brain but survived, Swedish media reported. A 20-year-old woman sitting next him was hit in the head and died.

Police say the weapon in that shooting was the same as the one used in other attacks linked to the mysterious gunman.

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Naser Yazdanpanah, a 57-year-old tailor from Iran, believes he confronted the gunman on Oct. 23 after a shot was fired at his shop when he was ironing trousers. He says he rushed out to the street and tried to stop the shooter.

"I started screaming for help, hoping someone would help," Yazdanpanah said. "He jumped, head-butted me and broke two of my teeth. Then he fell down, I lost my grip and I couldn't catch him, and he ran away."

Police say someone did fire at Yazdanpanah's store but have not determined whether it was the serial gunman.

The shootings have been scattered all across town.

Two weeks earlier, a 47-year-old man Somali man was shot at a Malmo bus stop across the street. Another man was gunned down Oct. 19 while waiting for the bus at a different location. Conteh and his friends were attacked in the city center.

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Malmo historically has been a blue-collar city whose identity was closely tied to a bustling shipyard that built freighters and submarines. A hulking white gantry crane was once its most prominent landmark.

The shipyard closed in the 1990s and the crane was dismantled, painted red and moved to South Korea in 2003.

Few regretted the loss. The city aspired to be at the forefront of Sweden's evolution from manufacturing to a service economy steeped in IT, banking and fashion design.

Today, the former industrial harbor houses a university with 25,000 students, modern apartment complexes and the defining feature of Malmo's skyline -- a 54-floor high-rise named "Turning Torso" for its 90-degree skyward twirl.

Residents take pride in the transformation and a sense of exuberance has the infused the city since a road-and-rail link to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, was completed in 2000.

But optimism has been tempered by negative headlines about crime and xenophobia. Jews say they feel unsafe in Malmo because of a rise in hate crimes. Anti-Israel riots made worldwide news at a Davis Cup match last year.

Unrest flares up at regular intervals in Rosengard, a district dominated by immigrants from Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Lebanon that is seen across Scandinavia as an emblem of failing integration.

Youths in Rosengard often set fire to cars and trash bins, then welcome the firetrucks with a shower of rocks. When things are at their worst, firefighters refuse to come into the area without a police escort.

Some of Malmo's criminal gangs are based in Rosengard. Rumors spread that they wanted to hunt down the serial shooter on their own, but police warned that would only make matters worse.

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Police said Sunday they had arrested a suspect in the serial shootings, a 38-year-old Swede with a gun license and no previous criminal record. Police also seized two weapons at the raid Saturday on the suspect's home in Malmo but wouldn't say if they had been used in any of the shootings.

After questioning, a prosecutor formally arrested the man on suspicion of one count of murder and seven counts of attempted murder. He denied the allegations, police spokesman Borje Sjoholm told reporters.

"The reason we became interested in this man was tip-offs from the public," Sjoholm said, urging citizens to come forward with any more information.

Residents, meanwhile, tried to erase the fear from their lives. Susse Albonico, 31, whose parents are from Chile, watched Malmo win its 16th Swedish league title Sunday at the local stadium.

"I haven't been worried for myself but for my wife," he said. "I really hope they got the right guy."

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Associated Press writers Malin Rising and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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