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L.A. Group Asks Argentina to Jail Former Nazi Officer : Holocaust: Wiesenthal Center officials also seek speedy extradition. Jewish leaders meet with President Menem.

October 01, 1994|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem on Friday to jail a former Nazi SS officer who is being held under house arrest while he fights extradition to Italy, where he is wanted for war crimes.

Erich Priebke, 81, found a haven in Argentina, where he has lived since 1948. He has admitted participating in the execution of 335 Italian civilians--including 75 Jews--in March, 1944, outside Rome.

Priebke was arrested in the mountain resort of Bariloche, 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires, after admitting his role in the Ardeatine Caves massacre during World War II.

The victims were found shot in the back of the head, and Priebke confessed to shooting two, said Rabbi Daniel Landes, the Wiesenthal Center's national education director.

Priebke's job "was to bind the victims' hands and to check them off as they were shot one by one," Landes said. "He also carried out Nazi orders to round up Jews in Italy."

Priebke's "continued freedom mocks the memory of his victims," the Wiesenthal Center said in a letter handed to Menem.

At a news conference Friday, Menem, who is in Los Angeles promoting Argentina as an attractive economy for foreign investors, said he had not had an opportunity to read the letter from the Jewish leaders.

He met Friday with 20 representatives from Los Angeles' Jewish community, and the Priebke case did not come up during those talks.

Argentine judicial officials have favorably received Italy's request for Priebke's extradition, Menem said, but Priebke's "defense has been delaying the case with various claims."

During a May speech in Bariloche, a town with a large German community, Menem reportedly equated extraditing Priebke with a hypothetical extradition of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"If the extradition of former SS Officer Erich Priebke is being requested on the grounds that the Jewish Holocaust was a war crime, so was the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano, and in that case Argentina should request the extradition of former British Prime Minister Thatcher," the independent NA news agency quoted Menem as saying at a news conference.

The sinking of the Argentine cruiser during the 10-week Falklands War in 1982 claimed 323 lives among its crew of 1,093. About 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

The Wiesenthal Center letter to Menem said the organization is "deeply concerned by the slow pace of legal efforts" in connection with Italy's request to extradite Priebke.

"The local magistrate has agreed to the defense attorney's request that all documents related to Priebke's actions in World War II be first translated into Spanish," the letter said. That tactic could take more than a year, according to the letter.

Jewish leaders applaud the moral leadership Menem has provided, especially in the wake of a bombing that killed nearly 100 people at a Buenos Aires Jewish community center in July.

In a speech Friday to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Menem said he had told Jewish leaders in Boston, New York and Los Angeles that Argentina is "perhaps the only country where, after these attacks, we opened our doors to intelligence agencies from other countries."

He noted that the American Jewish Committee has said Argentina has the least anti-Semitic activity of any country in the world.

Authorities are hoping to find those responsible for the Buenos Aires bombing as soon as possible, Menem said, "but it is not an easy task." He reminded his audience at the Beverly Hilton Hotel that it took 22 years to track down the last culprit in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

Menem, whose parents immigrated to Argentina from Syria, was the first Argentine president to visit Israel.

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