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By Elaine Monaghan
Washington - Austria's foreign minister on Monday asked the United States to remove former president Kurt Waldheim from the "watch list" of people barred from US soil because CIA files opened on April 27 had no proof he was a war criminal who helped persecute Adolf Hitler's victims.
"Nothing against him has been found and I think for that reason it was a question of national respect to raise this here. Secretary Powell agreed to a review and that is what I could have expected," Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner said after meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But a senior state department official made clear she should not hold her breath. "She talked to the secretary in private about Waldheim and the secretary made clear we were not in a position to change our determination," he said.
He added, however, that the United States would certainly look at the aide memoire that she brought on the issue.
Waldheim, who was UN secretary-general from 1972 to 1982 and the president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, served in the German army in the Balkans in the 1940s when thousands of Jews were being deported.
Waldheim's placement on the watch list in 1987 meant he could not travel to Washington when he was president.
Waldheim conceded in a 1996 autobiography that he had concealed his service in the Nazi army from 1942 to 1945 but insisted his behaviour was above reproach.
The minister's move infuriated the influential World Jewish Congress in New York, which said the CIA files only proved he had not acted as an intelligence resource for the United States but may have been used by Soviet intelligence organizations.
The CIA's "name files" involved those who were suspected of being involved in Nazi criminal and intelligence operations.
Ferrero-Waldner, from the conservative People's Party like Waldheim, said it was inappropriate to open his file alongside those of the likes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Mengele.
She told reporters before meeting Powell that her door was open to Jewish groups but said she would raise the issue during her visit with the Bush administration, which also included a meeting with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"The CIA files have been opened... and do not contain any material whatsoever indicating that Mr Waldheim assisted in or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons, of any person I would say, because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion," she said.
"I would hope that Mr Waldheim could be abolished from the watch list because I think this was a decision that was based upon this CIA report," she said.
"I am aware of the fact that this is not an easy decision. I am absolutely aware. But I think I can ask to examine the position anew according to these new facts that have come up, no?" she added.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said in a telephone interview from New York that successive Austrian foreign ministers had sought to remove Waldheim from the watch list of undesirable aliens.
"It's a disgrace that Austria would continue to seek to remove him," he said. "The CIA files did not even deal with his war record."
An international commission that reported to the Austrian government in 1986 found Waldheim had volunteered to be a member of Hitler's "brownshirts" or storm troopers and that he had repeatedly assisted in the execution of illegal actions.
In Austria, some of Waldheim's political opponents now say he was treated unfairly, arguing his offense was the attempt to cover up being a young officer in Hitler's Wehrmacht, rather than involvement in war crimes.
Historian Gitta Sereny wrote in a letter May 6 to the London-based Independent daily newspaper that Waldheim must have known about deportations of Jews from the Balkans but there was no evidence he was involved in war crimes.
"There is no doubt either that 43 years later, afraid in the climate of the times of the consequences of his political ambitions if he admitted to this knowledge, he lied to the world about it," she wrote. "It was a grave mistake and a disservice to the country he loves, but it was not a crime."
Ferrero-Waldner said since Waldheim was in his 80s and the accusation "seems to be without any basis, I think this is also a humanitarian act" to remove him from the list. - Reuters