SS man arrives to face massacre trial

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One of the world's last major suspected Nazi war criminals, the former SS captain Erich Priebke, was extradited from Argentina to Italy yesterday to face trial for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 Jews and resistance fighters in the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of Rome.

The 82-year-old, looking relaxed and wearing a Tyrolean hat, arrived at Ciampino airport on board a small Falcon military aircraft in the early hours escorted by 10 Italian police officers and a medical team. He was then taken into custody at the Forte Boccea military prison pending his first preliminary court hearing on 7 December.

His will be the first war crimes trial in Italy since the immediate postwar period, and looks likely to revive uncomfortable memories and pose uncomfortable questions about how such a notorious figure managed to evade detection, much less justice, for almost half a century.

Captain Priebke was part of the SS team ordered to round up Italians in retaliation for the killing of 33 German soldiers blown up by a bomb in central Rome.

Prosecutors believe he was responsible for drawing up the list of victims - 10 for every German killed - and may have killed some of them personally.

The victims, flushed out of the city's jails or rounded up at their homes, were driven out to the caves and shot in groups of five. The youngest of them was just 15 years old.

The caves were then mined in a half-successful attempt to cover up what was to become known as the worst wartime atrocity committed in Italy.

Erich Priebke was captured at the end of the war, but escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Rimini and fled to South America. The Italian authorities gave him up as missing in the 1960s, but he lived openly as a hotelier in the mountain resort of San Carlo de Bariloche in Patagonia.

It was thanks to the efforts of an American ABC television team which tracked him down and interviewed him 18 months ago, that the justice authorities were able to reopen the case and apply for his extradition.

The military prosecutors admit they will not have an easy time proving their case, particularly since nearly all witnesses to the massacre are now dead. It is not clear, for example, if the last five victims - surplus to the number demanded by Berlin - were deliberately added by Priebke or simply the result of a bureaucratic "error".

The prosecutors have hinted, however, that they have an eyewitness, as well as incriminating evidence gathered during the 1948 trial which passed a life sentence on Priebke's superior, Herbert Kappler, who was Gestapo chief for Rome.

Mr Priebke claims that a senior Catholic churchman helped him flee the country, and that he returned to Italy with impunity several times over the years with high-level blessing. He insists that any wrong-doing on his part was the consequence of obeying orders.

Italy's record in prosecuting the caves case is less than brilliant. Not only did the 1948 court acquit four of Priebke's colleagues, arguing that they had no choice but to do what they were told; but the one defendant they convicted, Kappler, also managed to escape in 1977. He died a year later Germany.