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Crime to prime-time for mistreated Bosnian bear

By Ranko Cukovic
PRIJEDOR, Bosnia (Reuters)

A Bosnian bear who fell into the hands of mobsters and almost died from starvation and solitude travels to a French sanctuary this week for a life of luxury with two female companions.

When Miljen's mother was killed by hunters in 2000, the cub was sold to a crime boss keen to emulate famous Balkan criminals who see keeping wild animals as proof of machismo.

When the gangster was jailed in 2005 for running a trafficking and prostitution ring, Miljen was left to the mercy of neighbors, who could only afford to feed him bread.

He weighed just 70 kg (155 lb) by the time a Serbian film-maker saw him while shooting footage in the area.

The French animal protection group Respectons and Bosnian counterpart Noa started a bureaucratic marathon to get the bear to the sanctuary in Normandy.

"The case of this bear is without precedent," Noa president Dragomir Mijic told Reuters. "He will enter the European Union as a special case."

Because Bosnia has not signed an international convention on animal transport, Miljen almost found himself in the same quagmire as his human compatriots, who have to fill in endless forms and queue for hours to apply for often-denied EU visas.

Finally his saviors were told they could move him only if medical tests proved he was in good health. Locals in Prijedor chipped in, and it took three months of intensive feeding to get the animal to 200 kg and have the blood tests.

"This is a big moment," Patrick Sacco, of Respectons, said while feeding Miljen an apple. "He will, probably for the first, time meet animals like him, because for eight years he was always alone in his cage."

Miljen starts his journey on Tuesday and is due to reach his new home later this week. Locals will see him off with an old-fashioned Bosnian Serb wedding custom, offering the French activists embroidered towels normally given to wedding guests.

"He will be transported in an air conditioned van with video surveillance, accompanied by specially trained vets and French TV crews," Mijic said.

(additional reporting by Mirna Soja; Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Ellie Tzortzi) .

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