Honecker flies home to Berlin Wall reckoning

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The Independent Online
NEARLY 18 months after escaping to Moscow in a Soviet military aircraft, Erich Honecker, East Germany's former leader, returned to Berlin last night to face manslaughter charges over killings along the Berlin Wall.

Mr Honecker, who led and shaped the East German state for 18 years, raised a defiant clenched fist before being driven out of the Chilean embassy compound in Moscow with his wife, Margot. The couple had taken refuge there last December.

Mr Honecker's return is the culmination of months of delicate negotiations between Bonn, Moscow and Santiago. His continued presence in Moscow had been a constant bone of contention between Russia and Germany, and a source of embarrassment to Chile.

On arrival at Tegel airport in Berlin, the 79-year-old Communist, who has claimed to be seriously ill, was immediately arrested and driven to the city's Moabit jail. Two doctors examined him there and ruled he was well enough to withstand being jailed, Jutta Limbach, Berlin's top justice official, said. After a more through examination, the Berlin District Court must decide on whether he will remain in jail. Uta Folster, spokeswoman for Berlin justice authority, said the aim was to bring him before a court by the end of the year. A handful of protesters waving East German flags were at the airport to greet their former leader. 'Hands off Honecker,' shouted one. 'This is nothing but a witch- hunt,' said another. But some applauded his return. 'After all the pain he caused us East Germans, we should be allowed to avenge ourselves,' said Elke Jager. 'As far as I am concerned, his punishment cannot be great enough.'

The authority has already charged Mr Honecker in connection with 49 killings and 25 attempted killings at the Berlin Wall and along the former inner-German border. Having tried several former border guards over the deaths, the authority has always wanted to take the former East German leader to court over the infamous 'shoot-to-kill' order that left dead at least 350 East Germans seeking to flee west.

Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, said: 'We are very grateful to both Russia and Chile that Mr Honecker has been returned. But we do not have a feeling of triumph. There will be no show trial: Mr Honecker will be treated lawfully and fairly.'

Bjorn Engholm, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, said the return was 'long overdue'.

Despite repeated protests from Bonn, Mikhail Gorbachev had always refused to hand Mr Honecker over. But his successor, Boris Yeltsin, insisted Mr Honecker should be returned to Germany. Mr Honecker, however, clung to his embassy refuge, hoping to negotiate his release to Chile, where his daughter lives.

In rare press interviews, he has shown no sign of remorse and has always insisted that he would rather commit suicide than return to Germany.

Last night, Friedrich Wolff, his lawyer, said he would appeal against the charges.