• Kyodo

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Copper theft has become rampant nationwide, with more than 30 cases reported in Hokkaido in which electrical wiring and other forms of the conductive metal were stolen and probably exported to material-hungry China, according to police.

In July, a 200-meter-section of electrical cable that had been strung on utility poles was stolen in the town of Tobetsu near Sapporo, causing a blackout in the neighborhood, which is among rice paddies.

Hokkaido Electric Power Co. said there have been similar cases of theft since April, and that up to 2 km of wire has been stolen.

Thefts have also been reported in Saga, Aomori and Gifu prefectures.

Police believe rising copper demand in China is a major factor, as the world’s fastest-growing economy needs more power supply cables to reach its rural areas.

Police also said major urban development projects in China, including the planned 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, have worsened the situation.

A surge in copper prices is another factor, one police official said. According to industrial experts, international copper prices hit $8,788 a ton in May, an almost five-fold increase over 2001.

Although police have yet to pin down the perpetrators and establish a clear link between the thefts and rising demand in China, there was a case in July that suggests the existence of organized criminal groups in China.

Hokkaido police arrested 14 crewmen of a Chinese freighter on suspicion of stealing 4 tons of copper discards from an industrial waste site in the town of Muroran.

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