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Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
Austria makes offer to Nazi victims
Mauthausen camp
The Nazis' Mauthausen death camp in Austria
Austria is offering $480m in compensation to Nazi slave labour victims - far short of the sum they are seeking.

The government's negotiator on the issue, Maria Schaumayer, said the first payments could be made by the end of the year.

A lawsuit filed against the Austrian state earlier this month by New York laywer Ed Fagan seeks $18bn to compensate Nazi slave labourers.



This absurd suit cannot be negotiated

Maria Schaumayer

"This absurd suit cannot be negotiated," said Ms Schaumayer in a television interview.

She added that the claim represented 10% of Austria's gross domestic product.

Her offer comes as Israel prepares for ceremonies on Tuesday to commemorate the estimated six million Jews who perished in World War II.

Ed Fagan
US lawyer Ed Fagan wants more

Ms Schaumayer is meeting US Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat this month as part of her country's bid to secure a "legal peace", which would protect Austrian firms from class actions relating to forced labour.

Under her proposed settlement, which is very similar to a German deal, slave labourers would receive around 105,000 schillings ($8,360) each. Other forced labourers would be given 35,000 schillings ($2,790).

Ms Schaumayer was appointed in February, shortly after the far-right Freedom Party entered a coalition government with the conservative People's Party.

The appointment was widely seen as a gesture of goodwill towards Austria's critics.

The new government has been isolated by its EU partners, who are concerned about the Freedom Party's lack of commitment to democracy and human rights.

US donations

In a related development, the US Chamber of Commerce is to solicit donations from American corporations to compensate slave labourers and others forced to work in German factories owned by US firms or their subsidiaries during World War II.

The chamber, which represents over three million businesses worldwide, decided to establish the fund after being approached by the Clinton administration and various US corporations threatened with lawsuits by survivors and their descendents.

Several large American companies, including Ford and General Motors, have acknowledged having benefited from slave labour during the war.

"If we can assist member companies in resolving a humanitarian situation, while at the same time preventing trial lawyers from getting their hands on the money, we would like to help," Chamber spokesman Frank Coleman said.

The fund would also allow companies to pool resources to respond to humanitarian challenges around the world, including disaster relief.

Legal experts are due to meet later in the week to determine how funds specifically for war reparations will be structured within the foundation.

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