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Arrest of 'hitman' may unmask Stasi death squad

German prosecutors have arrested an alleged member of an East German secret police death squad which is believed to have assassinated dozens of enemies of the former Communist regime during the Cold War.

The arrest of the suspect, named only as Juergen G, aged 53, is the first of its kind since East Germany's collapse in 1989, and could lead to the unmasking of scores of other members of the former regime's clandestine unit.

Federal prosecutors said in a statement yesterday that Juergen G, who was arrested on Monday, was being held on suspicion of carrying out a series of contract killings between 1976 and 1987 for East Germany's notorious Stasi secret police.

A Stasi dossier containing the names of thousands of East and West Germans believed to have spied for East Germany during the Cold War is thought to have helped to lead prosecutors to the suspect.

The dossier, called the Rosenholz file, was held by the CIA and handed back to Germany in June this year after protracted negotiations between Washington and Berlin. A Russian KGB agent smuggled the Rosenholz file out of the Stasi headquarters in east Berlin during the chaos that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The document arrived in CIA hands in what is regarded as one of the agency's most spectacular intelligence coups.

Federal prosecutors believe the Stasi assassination squad was responsible for killing those regarded by the regime as traitors or as a threat to the East German state. The unit was believed to have been set up at the height of the Cold War by the Stasi commander Erich Mielke.

Karl-Wilhelm Fricke, a German historian, said: "There have been dozens of clues pointing to the existence of such units which operated on the so-called 'invisible front'. They suggest that they were not only trained to kill the regime's opponents, but actually did so."

Mr Fricke said that proving the existence of a Stasi assassination squad had been hampered until now because of a lack of records and the fact that many documents were destroyed by the Stasi in 1989 and 1990 during the collapse of the regime.

The German media have linked a number of suspicious deaths to the Stasi. They include those of Lutz Eigendorf, an East German footballer who defected to the West and was killed in a mysterious car accident in 1983. Eigendorf's Alfa Romeo hit a tree on a straight road. Tests showed he had alcohol in his blood, but witnesses said he had not had a drink before getting into his car.

Another case involved Cats Falk, a Swedish newspaper reporter who vanished in November 1984 after investigating links between western weapons manufacturers and the East German regime. Her body was dragged from a car submerged in a Stockholm canal six months later.