An Austrian newspaper has claimed the Slovak police are in cahoots with organised car thieves.
The claims were first made by the Austrian daily newspaper Kurier in early January. Within 24-hours Interior Minister Ivan Šimko received a letter from his Austrian counterpart, Ernst Strasser, who requested an explanation and co-operation with the Austrian police investigating the crimes.
The scandal is expected to be at the top of the agenda at the next bilateral Slovak-Austrian meeting of Interior Ministry experts.
Kurier mentioned two cases of Austrian citizens who recently visited Bratislava and whose cars were stolen. Both alleged that they were contacted by police officers who offered advice to them about how they could get their cars back.
The paper said that one Albanian living in Austria for 30 years had had his older model Mercedes stolen in December. The man said that at the police station one man approached him offering to tell, for 2,000 German marks, how he could get his vehicle back.
The next day he was contacted by an unknown man who said the car would be parked in the afternoon near the Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava, but that unless he paid another 4,000 marks, his car would be sent to Ukraine. Two citzens of the former Yugoslavia accompanied by two men in police uniforms eventually returned the car.
Jörg Zwetler of the Austrian branch of Interpol said his department knew of similar cases where Austrian citizens whose cars were stolen in Slovakia were met by uniformed men. But he added: "We don't know for sure that they were real police officers".
Šimko said that although he had no previous knowledge of connections between police and organised car thieves, "to a certain extent this could have been expected.
"In the past members of the police have been arrested during raids on refugee smugglers."
Former chief investigator Jaroslav Ivor also admitted that it was possible the underworld had tried to establish contacts among the police.
Ivor said: "All around the world the Mafia is trying to get inside the police, to get information and thereby lower the risk of their criminal activities being discovered."
Slovak and Austrian police have agreed to work together in investigating the allegations by forming a special working group. Police President Pavel Zajac said he expected the results of the investigation to be known within one month.
According to Ľudovít Miháľ, deputy head of Bratislava's regional police headquarters, 5,344 cars were stolen in Slovakia in 2001, with 40 per cent of the thefts occurring in the capital.
Although the overall police success rate in tracking down and returning the stolen cars to their owners is 24 per cent, the rate in Bratislava is considerably lower at just 5.1 per cent.
Kurier also said that two in three car thefts reported to Austrian Interpol happened in Bratislava. The paper claimed the Slovak capital is the centre of activity for organised car thieves.
Šimko admitted that many Slovak citizens had lost faith in the police force and often preferred to pay the Mafia to get their cars back rather than deal with police. However, he insisted that generalisations that the entire force was corrupt or connected to criminal circles were not acceptable.
"There are many cases when police track down stolen cars and give them back to their owners. Let's not spread panic," the minister said, adding he planned to take measures which would repair the popular credit the police had lost.