Murders impel US army to flush out neo-Nazi groups

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The Pentagon hopes that the conviction this week of a former paratrooper at an elite unit for a brutal double racial killing will send a powerful signal that white supremacism and neo-Nazism have no place in the US Army.

James Burmeister, 21, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, was found guilty of the first degree murders of a black couple, Jackie Burden and Michael James, as they strolled down a road close to the division's base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The sentencing phase of the trial, in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, began yesterday.

According to testimony during the trial, Burmeister carried out the killings after a night's drinking with two like-minded fellow soldiers - apparently in order to qualify for a spider's web tattoo, which in some US skinhead groups is a badge denoting the bearer has killed a black person. After his arrest, white supremacist literature, weapons and a neo-Nazi flag were found in his lodgings. Other witnesses said he frequently talked of rounding up blacks and shooting them.

The December 1995 shootings led to an investigation of US troops worldwide to discover the influence of skinhead and other racist groups. The phenomenon was not widespread, with 100 of 7,600 army soldiers admitting they had links with white hate organisations.

Three per cent claimed to have been approached to join after they had enlisted, and the whole affair is doubly traumatic for an institution that has prided itself on being one of the first to break down the barriers of racism in American society.

At the 82nd Airborne, 22 men were shown to have had "active, passive or former" ties with extremist groups. All have since been punished, most of them by dishonourable discharge. Among them were Burmeister and his co-defendant Malcolm Wright, who faces separate trial later this month, largely on the basis of evidence supplied by the third member of the trio, Randy Meadows, who has pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

The verdict has come as the Pentagon grapples with two other seemingly endemic ills of the military: the practice of "hazing", or brutal initiation rites for new soldiers, and widespread sexual harassment of female recruits by their supervising officers. Last month, Defense Secretary William Cohen, vowed "zero tolerance" for hazing, after the heavily publicised ordeals of two female cadets at the previously all-male Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sexual harassment in army ranks is also more of a problem than ever. After a spate of cases came to light at a training ground in Maryland last year, more than 1,000 female soldiers contacted a hotline to say they had been similarly victimised. Particularly embarrassing for the Pentagon, it emerged that a member of a board set up last year to investigate sexual harassment was himself an alleged harasser.