Crime gangs target British churches for heavy metal

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LONDON, Nov 14 (Reuters) For years, Britain's clergy have worried about falling church attendance. Now they're worried about a group who turn up too often -- thieves.

In the past year there has been a sharp hike in the theft of lead from church roofs, triggered by the price of the metal quadrupling on international markets.

At more than 3,500 dollars a tonne, lead has become a major target for organised gangs looking to sell on to scrap merchants who trade into the booming markets in China and India.

As a result, priests have turned up at churches to discover rainwater pouring through great holes in the roof after thieves stripped the heavy lead lining overnight.

''This trend of theft is pretty much unlike anything we've seen before,'' Chris Pitt of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which insures churches, told Reuters on Tuesday.

''It's become a really serious problem and it's showing no signs at all of declining.'' In 2005, Ecclesiastical handled just 80 claims for the theft of lead from the roofs of the 16,500 Anglican churches it insures in Britain. This year it has already handled 1,800 at a payout of more than 12 million dollars.

CRIME GANGS But churches are not the only target.

While lead, which in June last year was trading at barely 950 dollars a tonne, is particularly attractive to criminals, copper, tin, bronze, brass and zinc are also extremely valuable, making anything that contains them a target, from statues to railroads.

A bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, valued at 6 million dollars, was stolen from an English estate in December 2005 to be sold on for scrap, police said, even though it would likely have fetched only 10,000 dollars or less for the thieves.

In September this year a woman was arrested after a life-size bronze statue of British Olympic champion Steve Ovett was stolen from its plinth to be sold for scrap.

Being copper-based, brass and bronze have become particularly popular -- copper prices have surged from around 3,000 dollars a tonne in late 2004 to around 7,000 dollars a tonne today.

Crime experts say the phenomenon, seen in similar patterns across Europe, is unlikely to ease as long as China and other booming Asian economies have a high demand for the metals.

Statistics for copper theft in Britain almost precisely match the graph for the commodity's market price, according to British police, who have battled the theft of copper wire from railway lines for the past two years.

''It's always been a bit of an issue, but it really erupted for us at the end of 2006,'' said Simon Lubin, a spokesman for the British transport police, which monitors the nationwide rail network. ''It's our biggest challenge after terrorism.'' The theft ranges from petty criminals stealing a few strands of copper from lines that are being laid, to whole drums of the metal being taken from depots by sophisticated gangs.

''It's huge numbers,'' said Lubin, explaining that police were working with scrap dealers to try to choke off the trade.

''It's organised international crime and some of this stuff is being shipped straight to China.'' REUTERS SV KP0851

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