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South American states in search for Nazi gold

War crimes: 'Evita' linked to looted Jewish funds
Spurred by efforts to trace Nazi loot in Swiss banks, South American Jews want to know what happened to billions of dollars' worth of gold, cash and artwork believed to have been brought here by fleeing Nazi officers after the Second World War. Most of the officers, and their booty, ended up in Argentina or Brazil.

In Brazil, a five-man presidential commission, which includes two Jews, begins a government-funded official investigation this week. It hopes to finish its inquiries in 18 months.

"The aim is three-fold," said commission member Henry Sobel, senior rabbi at Sao Paulo synagogue. "One, to find out how many Nazis came to Brazil and how much they brought with them. Two, to trace what happened to those funds. And three, in collaboration with the World Jewish Congress, to distribute any recovered funds to Holocaust survivors."

Mr Sobel admitted that the last aim would be difficult, but said the commission had already had tip-offs about large investments by ex-Nazi officers in Brazilian companies after the war. The firms could be pressured to make reparations rather than face negative publicity, he said.

In Argentina, where thousands of Nazi officers were welcomed with open arms at the end of the war by President Juan Peron, investigations are moving slowly.

Last month, President Carlos Menem's government said complete Central Bank archives would be placed at the disposal of investigators from the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

The centre had drawn up a list of 334 Nazi officers, their wives or girlfriends, and Argentinian bankers suspected of holding looted Jewish funds during and after the war. By early this week, however, the Central Bank had not yet opened up the key archives, according to Sergio Widder, Latin American representative of the Wiesenthal Centre. A separate report to be published this month by the Argentinian Jewish community, based mostly on declassified United States documents, is expected to reveal the complicity between the Nazis and Juan Peron and his girlfriend and eventual wife, Eva.

In the years after the war, "Evita" reportedly travelled to Switzerland to liaise between underground ex-Nazis on laundering their funds to Argentina.

The World Jewish Congress believes that Swiss banks received gold ingots from the Nazis, melted them down in other forms and shipped them to Nazi accounts or deposit boxes in South America.

There has long been speculation that senior Nazi officers used submarines to flee to Argentina with their loot in a network aided by the Vatican and the Swiss-based International Red Cross. Divers are currently trying to find a U-boat off the southern city of Viedma, in the hope that it may carry gold or other treasure.