Austria arms caches awaken Cold War ghost

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

Austria has had an uncomfortable reminder of its days on the front line of the Cold War with the revelation that US arms secretly hidden more than 40 years ago to counter a possible Soviet takeover could still be buried in depots throughout the country.

Government officials confessed yesterday that they were baffled by news of the 79 arsenals, disclosed by the US ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt, over the weekend. Chancellor Franz Vranitzky has demanded precise details of the locations of the arsenals, which reportedly each contained enough guns, pistols and explosives for some 150 anti-Communist rebels, and even substantial amounts of gold.

Mr Vranitzky also plans to ask the three other powers that occupied Austria for 10 years after the war - France, Britain and Russia (as the successor to the Soviet Union) - whether they, too, stashed arms in case of a possible conflict.

An official at the British embassy in Vienna said yesterday that he had "no information whatsoever" about any possible British arms caches and that the embassy had not been approached by the Austrian government on the matter. Ms Hunt, however, told Austrian media: "It was probable that Britain had taken similar steps [to the US] at the time in its zones in Europe."

According to Ms Hunt, the existence of the secret US arms arsenals had only come to light recently after the CIA decided to inform Congress about them. She said she was sorry Austria "was informed so late about the matter", describing it as a "relic from the Cold War".

The arms depots, centred on Salzburg, the heart of the US occupation zone in Austria, are believed to have been set up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Cold War tensions were at their highest.

The Austria Press Agency reported that they were intended to be used by US-backed resistance fighters, similar to the Gladio fighters in Italy.

For 10 years after the war, Austria was split into four occupation zones.

Like Berlin, Vienna was divided, in a Cold War atmosphere immortalised by The Third Man. Given the tensions of the time, most Austrians have been reluctant to condemn the existence of the US arms arsenals. Some former resistance fighters have even said they were established at the request of the then government, terrified at the prospect of a Soviet takeover.