The use of a grenade in an attack on a suburban street in Melbourne has exposed an escalation of gang violence in the Australian city, consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the world.
Residents in the suburb of Lalor, in the north-west of the city, told CNN Tuesday they were shocked to find out the explosion they heard outside a family home last November was caused by a hand grenade. Police said the device was made in the former Yugoslavia, raising concerns about how such a weapon had found its way into Australia.
No one was injured in the attack, though two men, two women and a baby were inside the house at the time. Neighbors said the family were well known the police.
Police did not give full details of the incident at the time, but issued an appeal for help on Tuesday.
“It was extremely fortunate no one was injured,” Detective Sergeant Anthony Gasparini of Victoria Police said. “It could have been fatal – that’s what a grenade is designed to do.”
Gasparini said he believed it was the first time a grenade had been used in an attack in Australia. “It’s very unusual and I can’t say I’ve heard of it being used before,” he said.
“Obviously it’s quite concerning that organized crime entities have their hands on this weapon.”
Police said an ongoing feud linked to drug dealing, believed to involve a number of Middle Eastern families, had escalated to involve non-fatal shootings and “tit-for-tat” attacks.
Early morning attack
Victoria Police released a composite image of the man they hope to speak to in relation to the incident, and a car that was spotted at the scene.
According to police, a mother and her infant child were sleeping in the front room of the suburban bungalow when an M52 hand grenade was hurled at the front door around 2.30 a.m. on November 19. The device caused extensive damage to building and several parked cars.
When CNN went to the property on Tuesday, signs of an explosion could still be seen in shrapnel marks on the front steps and ornate concrete bannisters. The house appeared to be abandoned, with metal screens covering the windows and a tattered children’s trampoline on the front lawn.
Neighbors living in nearby properties told CNN they didn’t realize the weapon used in the November attack was a grenade.
Yolande Alderweiss, 72, remembered hearing the explosion on the night it happened, and initially believed it was a traffic accident on a nearby busy highway.
“Then suddenly there were lots of police cars and so much noise. I live alone so the situation was very frightening,” she said. “I’m shocked to discover it was caused by a grenade, I’ve never heard of a grenade being used in Australia, it’s unbelievable.”
Elizabeta Popstojanova, 28, who lives across the street, said she was “very scared” to learn the explosion was caused by a grenade, especially as her baby was only a few weeks old at the time.
“I didn’t even hear the explosion at the time, I just saw lots of police cars, which was common because of that family anyway,” she said. “I just hate the idea that the explosion could have harmed my daughter or anyone else living here. It’s surreal.”
One resident of the street in Lalor said the residents of the house in question, who had since moved out of for safety reasons, were troublesome locals who “parked all over the court” and attracted frequent visits from the police.
The incident came after an associate of the family was shot last August in a hit that police suspect was organized by an underworld figure now serving time in prison.
A separate feud between the large family and the Comanchero outlaw motorcycle gang was also behind several shootings in 2016 and last year, police believe.
Not a random attack
The recent feuding between gangs is reminiscent of Melbourne’s infamous “Gangland War,” which resulted in 27 deaths from 1998 to 2006.
The Victoria state government and police hope new firearms prohibition orders will stop the use of illegal guns and gang shootings which have been the usual hallmark of rivalries in the north-west of the city.
The orders are expected to be handed to 3,000 crime figures allowing officers to search properties or vehicles without warrants.
Melbourne’s problem with Middle Eastern gangs has been growing in recent years, despite police attempts to control it.
In 2014 at least 27 people were arrested in a series of raids involving around 700 police officers. According to local media reports at the time officers seized drugs, firearms, cash, ammunition, vehicles and stolen property.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Gasparini said there was no particular risk to the public as it was a targeted attack.
“It just doesn’t happen randomly… a hand grenade being thrown at your front door,” he said. “And we’d like to ID this individual so we can link it to Middle Eastern crime entities.”
Gasparini conceded people may be too afraid to come forward due to the weapon used but urged them to do so even if it’s anonymously.
“If anyone does have information please come forward as obviously we want to get them off the streets,” he added.