Massacre trial could shame new Fascists

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The Independent Online
AN ARREST warrant was issued yesterday for the former SS officer Erich Priebke, 81, who allegedly played a leading role in the massacre of 335 Italians at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome in 1944.

Mr Priebke was found by an American television team last week in the Argentinian mountain resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, home of a large number of German Nazis, where he has been living under his own name for 50 years.

The warrant, issued by a military prosecutor in Rome, opens the way for extradition proceedings. The case, and particularly the prospect of a trial in Italy, comes as an embarrassment to the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance (AN) as it is about to enter government - the first time heirs of Fascism have done so since the war.

Teodoro Bontempo, one of AN's neo-Fascist diehards, declared that if Mr Priebke was put on trial, the partisans who bombed a German unit, thus provoking the massacre, should be tried in the same dock. Thirty-three German soldiers were killed in the bomb attack on a barracks in Via Rasella. In reprisal, 335 people, mostly civilians and including 75 Jews, were rounded up, taken to the Ardeatine caves near the catacombs south of Rome and shot.

The spot is now a memorial where representatives of the Italian nation and political parties regularly commemmorate the victims, but the neo-fascists always stayed away. Finally last year the AN leader Gianfranco Fini, as part of his drive to give the AN 'respectability' made a personal pilgrimage to the spot.

Herbert Kappler, the Rome Gestapo chief responsible for the massacre, was sentenced after the war to life imprisonment in Gaeta military prison near Naples. Thirty years later he was smuggled out by his German wife and taken to Germany whence he could not be extradited back to Italy. He later died.

Erich Priebke was his deputy and a warrant was issued for his arrest and trial along with Kappler. But Mr Priebke could not be found and the case against him was suspended. It emerged that he had escaped from a British prison camp and made his way to Argentina.

The American network ABC found him last week in Bariloche, a mountain resort which looks like a little Bavaria. Mr Priebke was a model citizen: the member of a German-Argentine friendship society and a school headmaster.

Mr Priebke did not attempt to hide his identity or his past. 'Everyone here knew he was a Nazi and took part in a massacre. He never hid anything,' Thomas Buch, another German resident, told journalists. To the numerous reporters who have sought him since in Bariloche, he openly admits participating in the massacre, says he was merely obeying orders and that a British military court had acquitted him.

'I was there at the entrance to the cave, I had the list in my hand. It was dark, I could not see their faces,' he told reporters. 'Kappler was the first to shoot, then we followed. He gave the order and we shot. It was I who drew up the list, although other comrades worked on it too.'