German set fire to refugee hostel 'to save village idyll'

THE EAST German florist who conspired to burn down an asylum-seekers' home in his neighbourhood confessed to the crime yesterday, but sought to justify his actions by invoking widespread public concern in his village.

On trial for hiring a neo-Nazi arsonist six years ago, Stefan Oste admitted that he had planned the attack in order to prevent foreigners moving into the building next to his own, in the village of Dolgenbrodt, 30 miles south of Berlin. Apart from Oste, 47, four other locals are in the dock, though prosecutors charge that most of Dolgenbrodt's then residents had known about the plot.

The blaze, two days before the asylum-seekers were due to arrive, was masked as just another of numerous, similar neo-Nazi attacks in those days. But the case, reminiscent in its callousness to the pogroms in Nazi times, has provoked outrage across the country.

"I would like to express my deepest apologies for the damage I caused to Germany inside and outside the country," Oste declared at his trial in Frankfurt an der Oder yesterday.

He recalled how he had collected money and paid off the neo-Nazi with the help of an electrician friend who is also on trial. The conspirators even supplied the molotov cocktails.

In his defence, Oste recalled he had been "under pressure" to act, after petitions and political pressure had failed to thwart official plans to convert a children's holiday home into a refugee hostel.

Villagers were afraid that the newcomers would bring crime into their idyllic, lakeside community, Oste said. They also feared clashes between left- and right-wing extremists. The destruction of the empty building, he added, had not been motivated by racism.

This is the third attempt to bring the masterminds of the Dolgenbrodt attack to book. On two previous occasions the residents pleaded not guilty, but this time one of the two skinheads responsible has turned State's evidence, despite the fact that he received more than 10,000 German marks (pounds 3,330) for his services.