Destroyed Stasi files draw Kohl deeper into scandal

Allegations that Helmut Kohl's government ordered the destruction of East German spy files on West German politicians a decade ago gave dramatic new momentum Monday to the slush fund scandal dogging the former chancellor.

As Kohl marked his 70th birthday in seclusion, some politicians speculated that he may have wanted to destroy evidence of illegal donations to his Christian Democratic party that are at the scandal's center. Kohl led the conservatives for 25 years.

Recent revelations on existing wiretap records by the Stasi, former East Germany's secret police, have shown former Kohl aides talking about secret campaign money flows. A newspaper report last week said the Stasi kept tabs on the party's financial dealings as far back as 1976.

But statements by the government suggested Monday that revealing files may have been destroyed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A suitcase of Stasi records on West German politicians was turned over to the country's counter-intelligence agency by the editor of a magazine that had run a series on them, Interior Ministry spokesman Bernd Lingenthal said.

Kohl's Cabinet took up the matter in mid-1990 and decided "that such files should be destroyed immediately, without looking at them or analyzing them," the spokesman said.

While it was unclear what evidence the files contained and how many were actually destroyed, the government's account added to the suspicions surrounding Kohl's 16 years in power. However, the governing Social Democrats said Monday that they had backed Kohl's decision in 1990.

All West German parties agreed that Stasi files on their politicians that circulated after the Wall came down should be destroyed, said the Social Democratic leader in parliament, Peter Struck.

There was no immediate comment from Kohl, who celebrated his birthday at an undisclosed location after gala events in Berlin and elsewhere were called off because of the scandal.

A parliamentary committee is already investigating whether political decisions under Kohl were for sale - something Kohl steadfastly denies.

A committee member from the governing coalition, Hans-Christian Stroebele, said one reason for destroying Stasi files could have been "the illegal donations to and financing of the Christian Democratic Union."

Kohl's quiet birthday contrasted with the euphoria when he engineered German unification in 1990 - his greatest achievement.

"On his 60th birthday, the nation lay at his feet," Kohl biographer Klaus Dreher told North German Radio. "He was celebrated."

On Monday, he left his home in the western town of Oggersheim heading to an unknown destination in an armored car, along with his wife Hannelore and a driver.

In a radio interview Sunday, Kohl insisted he wasn't bitter about being ostracized but allowed some pain to show, saying the fall from grace was "very difficult to bear."

But he received warm birthday wishes from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. President George Bush, two key partners in German unification. In statements to the Sat.1 television network, Gorbachev praised Kohl's achievements and Bush said "history will be very kind to Helmut Kohl."

German leaders, including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, commended Kohl for bringing about peaceful unification, but many mixed in references to the scandal that has tainted his legacy.

Since the affair erupted in December, Kohl has stubbornly refused to name anonymous donors who gave him more than 2 million marks (dlrs 1 million) in the 1990s.

Kohl's pledge to keep his word has fueled speculation that the money bought favors. Apart from parliament, prosecutors are also investigating the scandal, which has grown to include secret accounts, false financial reports and allegations of money laundering.

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