German Admits Firebombing That Killed 5 Immigrant Women, Children : Courts: Unemployed rightist apologizes to family as trial begins. Co-defendants snicker during confession.


On the opening day of his murder trial Wednesday, an unemployed German rightist confessed to a firebombing that killed five Turkish immigrant women and girls last year in the worst of a wave of hate crimes since German reunification.

Markus Gartmann, one of four defendants in the arson and murder trial, told his victims' family in a halting voice that he was "very sorry" and "infinitely ashamed" for the attack in Solingen, a western German city whose name has since become synonymous with racist violence.

Gartmann's co-defendants shook their heads and snickered during his confession. Gartmann, a 24-year-old former member of the extreme-right German People's Union, added that "the slogans of the right lead to hate and inhumanity, and all of us (defendants) here are the result."

The long-awaited trial began amid heavy security in a packed courtroom in the western city of Duesseldorf. The defendants were flanked by guards, and observers were frisked and combed with metal detectors upon entering the windowless court.

Outside, demonstrators held banners saying "Ban All Neo-Fascist Groups" and "Don't Forget Solingen," but although officials had feared violence, none was reported. Extra police units had been put on alert.

Near Bonn, however, unknown assailants tossed another firebomb at the home of asylum seekers from Africa, Afghanistan and Turkey shortly after midnight Wednesday. The bottle of gasoline exploded on the steps of the home in the town of Windeck, but no one was injured in what police presumed was a racist attack.

The Solingen killings on May 29, 1993, set off protests by thousands of Turks in Germany and brought international condemnation to a country still struggling with its Nazi history.

Anti-foreigner sentiment festered into a rash of attacks after reunification in 1990. Solingen was a copy of an attack in the northern city of Moelln the previous November in which a Turkish grandmother and two girls died when their home was torched.

Prosecutors assert that the four Solingen defendants set fire to the Genc family home after they had attended a party in town and fought with foreigners whom they mistook for Turks. Two women and three girls, ages 4, 9 and 13, died in the fire. Three others, including a 6-month-old baby, were hospitalized with serious burns.

About two dozen relatives of the victims watched the beginning of the trial, often on the verge of tears. The Genc family had lived in Solingen for decades before the attack.

Gartmann, shaken in court, cut off his testimony before giving details of the assault and is scheduled to continue today. He already had confessed in a letter to the Genc family in January and faces life in prison if convicted.

Another defendant, Christian Reher, 17, earlier had confessed to the attack, but he refused to testify in court. He said he would give his name but not answer any questions. Reher and Felix Koehnen, 16, who maintains his innocence, are charged as juveniles and face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The fourth defendant, Christian Buchholz, 20, also has denied he took part in the attack.

Prosecutor Dirk Fernholz told the panel of judges that the defendants were rightists who committed the crime out of "hatred for foreigners, particularly Turks."

In his opening statement, Fernholz said the defendants "saw themselves as rightists and associated with slogans such as 'Get Rid of Foreigners' and 'Germany for Germans.' " He said they were drunk when they made the attack.

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