The Battle of Magdalenka
March 13, 2003 By Witold Żygulski
The bloodiest confrontation between police and gangsters in recent history took place on the night of March 6. One policeman and two suspected criminals were killed and 17 police officers injured. The gangsters used machine guns, grenades and homemade high power explosives.
The two-hour shoot-out took place in the village of Magdalenka near Warsaw. Around midnight, a special police squad of 38 armed officers wearing bulletproof vests and helmets surrounded a house in the village. Police expected to find two extremely dangerous outlaws wanted in relation to the murder of a police officer.
One of the criminals was Robert Cieślak, aka Robinson, one of the last suspects-at-large connected to the shooting in Parole in March 2002. In Parole, a group of crooks tried to recapture a previously stolen truck loaded with hi-fi equipment. During the fight, the head of the investigation department at police headquarters in Piaseczno near Warsaw, was killed. He was first wounded and then executed in cold blood. Since that time, police have apprehended all the suspects in that shooting except three.
The other resident of the house in Magdalenka was 35-year-old Igor Pikus, holder of a Belarusian passport, former soldier in the Soviet Union's elite Spetsnaz troops and later a KGB officer in Germany, who offered his services to criminal groups in Poland as a contract killer. It is suspected that he was also involved in Parole.
As an expert in military explosives, Pikus transformed an ordinary house in Magdalenka into a stronghold stuffed with booby traps which took officers completely by surprise and resulted in unprecedented losses.
Reports from investigating police officers suggest that 29-year-old Cieślak had repeatedly said he would rather die than go to prison. The gangsters' desperation was greater than the darkest scenarios of officers who participated in the operation.
Shortly before 1 a.m., an armored police Land Rover rammed through the gate of the house which had been under surveillance for several hours. Officers jumped out of the car and tried to break through the door when a bomb hidden in a huge flowerpot in front of the house went off. Bomb experts estimated later that the bomb contained around two kilos of explosive material and twice that amount of screws, nails and sharp metal objects.
The powerful explosion threw attacking police officers to the ground. 29-year-old Dariusz M., who had served in the anti-terrorist unit for nine years, was standing closest to the bomb and was thrown through the air against a wall a few meters away. Although his colleagues risked their lives and managed to drag him out of the melee, he died 15 minutes later.
The first explosion was immediately followed by machine gun fire and lofted grenades from the windows. With remote control detonators, they set off other explosives located around the house. At first the perpetrators fired from the second floor and then, under heavy fire, they moved to the attic.
According to police reports, it was nearly 1.5 hours before a police officer managed to shoot and kill Cieślak when he leaned out of a window. The Belarusian was ordered to surrender several times but his only reaction was to hurl insults.
Shortly after the first suspect was killed, a series of explosions were heard inside the house which then caught on fire. Police say Pikus blew himself up. The bodies of both gangsters were recovered a few hours later, when the temperature inside the house permitted police to enter. Inside, the bomb squad found more hidden explosives, ready to be set off.
Due to partial charring of the corpses, 100-percent identification was impossible, but the bodies bore tattoos that the police recognized as belonging to Cieślak and Pikus. Police will probably perform DNA analysis with cooperation from Cieślak's family but police have not enough data available on Pikus for comparison.
Examination of the house revealed that the criminals were prepared to fire from all seven windows on three floors. Pikus and Cieślak had around 20 weapons, including sniper rifles, AK-47 assault rifles, Scorpion sub-machine guns and Mossberg shotguns.
Only a few police officers who were injured were shot in unprotected areas. Others were hurt by shrapnel from bombs and grenades and a majority of the injuries were delivered to areas that were not protected by bulletproof vests or kevlar helmets.
Out of 17 wounded officers, two are still in critical condition, including the squad commander, who conducted the operation to the end despite heavy injuries. One of the two policemen was shot in the head and underwent complicated surgery. The bullet, which was lodged in the back of his head, cannot be removed for the time being, but doctors say the officer has a chance for recovery. The other faced amputation of a leg which was maimed by shrapnel, but doctors managed to forgo the procedure. Most of the other injured officers will have to go through weeks of laborious physical therapy, some will also have to receive counseling.
Experts who are assembling an analysis of the operation in Magdalenka found that despite adequate preparations, the booby traps took officers completely by surprise. They also concluded that medical aid was badly organized, since the first ambulance arrived after 20 minutes. Participants in the operation say that the wounded policeman bled to death.
Some police experts point out that an alternative plan was possible-to attack while the perpetrators were leaving the building to get into their car. However, an examination of both men's cars revealed explosives which could also have been detonated had they been surrounded by police.
Officers say that the clash in Magdalenka was an unprecedented incident, the first time that police officers fought against criminals who employed methods previously known in Poland only from reports of Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Politicians who commented on the tragedy said the use of military commandos, such as the famous GROM unit, should be considered in similar situations. Today, Polish law does not allow this kind of operation, since GROM's central principle is to neutralize (or kill) the opponent, whereas police aim at apprehending perpetrators and bringing them to justice.