Touvier 'still in France' despite reports of escape: Nazi collaborator has not fled to Canada, lawyer says

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PAUL TOUVIER, the former French Nazi collaborator due to face trial for crimes against humanity, is still in France despite reports he had fled to Canada, his lawyer and an editor of a Jewish magazine said yesterday.

On Wednesday, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem said it had reliable information that Mr Touvier, 78, had left France three weeks ago and 'gone into hiding in Quebec'. A court last week ordered Mr Touvier to face trial for his activities as a leader of the militia in Lyons during the Second World War, which collaborated with the Nazis.

Yesterday, however, it appeared that the reports of his disappearance were based on a misinterpretation of an interview published in the French Jewish weekly Tribune Juive. The magazine's latest issue carried an interview with Marc Aron, the head of the Jewish organisation B'nai B'rith in France, who said the French authorities had 'lost his trace'.

Mr Touvier was in hiding for the best part of 40 years until he was arrested in a fundamentalist Catholic monastery in Nice in 1989.

Just after the war, a number of French collaborators tried to settle in Quebec, but many were extradited to face trial at home. 'At one point,' Mr Aron said, Mr Touvier 'was in Canada before his arrest.' Stephane Trano, Tribune Juive's political editor, said this did not mean Mr Touvier was in Canada now.

Jacques Tremolet de Villers, Mr Touvier's lawyer, said his client was living with his wife and two adult children in the Paris region. He said reports of his disappearance were 'absurd', adding that he had spoken by telephone to him yesterday morning.

The confusion over Mr Touvier's whereabouts stemmed from the legal battle over his case in the past two years. Though released from pre-trial detention on bail in 1991 because of ill health, he no longer had to report to the judicial authorities because one court, in a highly controversial decision last year, ruled he should not stand trial. That decision was reversed by the Versailles appeal court last week, but has not been accompanied by an order for him to report regularly to the authorities. Mr Touvier's trial, the first of a Frenchman for crimes against humanity, is expected to begin by the end of this year.

The furore raised by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's report, accompanied by an appeal from its Los Angeles headquarters to Charles Pasqua, the French Interior Minister, 'to do whatever is possible to prevent Touvier from escaping the bar of justice', prompted lawyers for Second World War victims' families to call on the government to put him under surveillance and remove his passport.

Mr Tremolet de Villers said his client was unaware of his reported disappearance and of the murder in Paris on Tuesday of Rene Bousquet, former Vichy police chief and one of two other Frenchmen facing charges of crimes against humanity. 'Paul Touvier does not watch television, he does not listen to the radio, he does not read the newspapers,' he said. 'The absence of information is for him an absolutely necessary hygiene.'