Neo-Nazi bombers could have been stopped in 1998

German investigators fear that full scale of extremist network has yet to be identified

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German investigators said yesterday they feared a network of far-right extremists rather than a small neo-Nazi terror cell was behind a decade-long series of bomb attacks and immigrant murders which had baffled police for over a decade.

The cell – the National Socialist Underground – was responsible for the murder of a policewoman and nine immigrant street vendors. It carried out two bomb attacks and robbed 14 banks to finance operations.

Police said the cell was not confined to four members, as had previously been thought, but included two other suspects and possibly more individuals. "This could actually amount to a network," said Jorg Ziercke, head of the German federal Criminal Police.

The attacks – the most brutal carried out by a neo-Nazi organisation in Germany since World War II – have shocked Germans. Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled them a "disgrace" and ministers announced plans to fight the far right.

It has emerged that a police commando unit was poised to arrest cell members in 1998 while they were living in eastern Germany. But according to a report by the east German radio station MDR, the unit was told to call off its raid at the last minute by "senior interior ministry officials in the eastern state of Thuringia."

Officials in Thuringia refused to comment. But police were reported to have wanted to carry out a raid after finding 1.4kg of TNT and other bomb-making equipment in 1998. Gang members went into hiding afterwards.

Police discovered the bodies of gang ringleaders Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Bohnhardt, both in their 30s, in a burned out caravan in the east German city of Eisenach last week after they were called to investigate a bank robbery in the town. The two had carried out the robbery and subsequently committed suicide, police said

A third suspect, a 36-year-old woman, surrendered to police in the eastern town of Zwickau after blowing up her flat in an attempt to destroy evidence. A fourth suspect was arrested near Hanover on Sunday. Police say they are questioning two further suspects which points to the existence of a network.

The alleged failure to catch the neo-Nazi cell members over a decade ago was the latest in a series of seemingly catastrophic blunders, which enabled the gang to be undetected for years.

Police claimed the shootings and bomb attacks were the work of Mafia groups. There are also strong suspicions that some gang members were double agents who were neo-Nazi killers and also informants for the the German intelligence service. Reports have suggested that German intelligence currently runs over 100 paid agents who have infiltrated the far right.

Official reaction to the neo-Nazi gang's activities has infuriated immigrant and Jewish groups which accuse the authorities of showing minimal sympathy for victims.

A conference of government ministers yesterday pledged to set up a national database to monitor the far-right. A working group has also been set up to examine the possibility of banning the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.