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Migrant accused of hostel death fire

A 21-year-old Lebanese man went on trial yesterday in the Baltic city of Lubeck accused of starting the blaze that killed 10 people and injured 38 others in a refugee hostel eight months ago. What seemed at the time the most horrendous neo-Nazi attack since the Second World War is now officially regarded as an act of petty vengeance, with one of the victims branded the perpetrator.

Safwan Eid, the sole defendant, is accused of setting fire to his neighbours on the first floor of the hostel. The evidence rests almost exclusively on three words he is alleged to have uttered in broken German during the rescue on the night of 18 January: "It was us."

The fireman who heard him thought very little of the incident, until he told the story later to his colleagues, who urged him to go to the police. Detectives had been interviewing four neo-Nazi sympathisers seen running away from the burning house. Several had singed hair, but police could find no evidence against them.

For lack of a better lead the four youths were released, and Mr Eid arrested. Throughout his incarceration, he has protested his innocence, but his alibi comes from members of his own family. Mr Eid's father says he heard a noise that night and looked out of the window, spotting the flames climbing from the entrance lobby on the ground floor.

The other families touched by the fire also believe Mr Eid is innocent. Immigrant groups staged demonstrations in Hamburg and Lubeck yesterday with the slogan "Free Safwan Eid". Prominent liberals have set up committees in his defence, and anti-racist groups are screaming about a cover-up.

The interpretation of events in Lubeck eight months ago has become a battle-ground for left and right. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Germany was swept with indignation. Politicians on the left, including Lubeck's mayor, Michael Boutellier, urged tough action against right-wing extremists and protection for immigrants. He even called for a civil disobedience campaign to halt deportations.

The stakes in the trial are high. Either Germany is a country in which foreigners must fear for their lives, or its image abroad as the home of rampant Nazi thugs is unjustified.