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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
WWII Nazi murder suspect on trial
Ladislav Niznansky
Niznansky denies killing 164 people in World War II
A former Nazi commander accused of ordering mass killings in occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II has gone on trial in Munich.

Ladislav Niznansky, 86, is charged with the murder of civilians in the final months of World War II.

He was a member of a Nazi unit that hunted down Slovak resistance fighters and Jews.

Mr Niznansky, a Czechoslovak who took German citizenship, denies having participated in the killings.

He is accused of having headed the Slovak section of a Nazi unit codenamed Edelweiss, after the Germans crushed an uprising against Slovakia's Nazi puppet government in 1944.

Mr Niznansky is accused of ordering the executions of the entire populations of two villages - Ostry Grun and Klak - that had been helping the partisans. Most victims were women and children.

Prosecutors say he gave the order, before the shooting began, that no-one be allowed to escape, and personally killed 20 people in Ostry Grun.

He is also accused of ordering the shooting of 18 Jewish civilians who were found hiding in underground bunkers.

German troops in WWII
Nazi troops carried out ruthless reprisals across Europe
His lawyer, Steffen Ufer, said in court Mr Niznansky was under orders from Nazi superiors and not present when the bulk of the shootings happened.

"He never gave an order to move against women and children, nor did he personally lift his hand against such persons," Mr Ufer said in his opening statement.

Mr Niznansky denies being at Ostry Grun and Klak at the time of the killings, his lawyer added.

But a soldier who himself served eight years in prison in the 1960s for his role in the operation says he saw the defendant personally shoot 22 victims - including a three-month-old baby girl, says the BBC's Ray Furlong.

In court, Mr Niznansky said he had never supported the aims of the Nazi party and only joined Edelweiss because he would have been thrown in a concentration camp otherwise, AFP news agency reported.

In absentia conviction

Mr Niznansky, who has survived two strokes, fled to West Germany following the war and lived unnoticed for years in Munich, where he used to work for Radio Free Europe.

He was arrested at his home in January. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Mr Niznansky was sentenced to death over the killings in his absence in the former Czechoslovakia in 1962, but by then he already had a Cold War career behind him.

Prosecutors are reported to have started investigating Mr Niznansky in 2001 after a request from the Slovak justice authorities.

The decision to move against him follows the reviewing of archives and court documents, and the questioning of witnesses.

The trial is also being closely watched in Slovakia, which recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of its uprising against the Nazis.

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