BERLIN -- Under pressure to turn former East German leader Erich Honecker over to stand trial, the Soviet military has spirited him away to Moscow, officials said yesterday.
Although the Soviet Embassy in Berlin refused to make any official comment, officials said privately that Mr. Honecker's medical condition had "worsened acutely" and that he required surgery. He is said to be suffering from heart and kidney problems.
"We took him to Moscow Wednesday for humanitarian reasons," one official said, saying Mr. Honecker could receive "more appropriate care" there than if he were sent to a German hospital.
Berlin justice officials were livid after learning of Mr. Honecker's departure and derided Soviet claims that he had to go to Moscow for surgery.
"I can only say that Mr. Honecker can be taken care of adequately in any Berlin hospital. We continue to insist that the Soviets turn him over to us," Berlin Justice Department spokeswoman Jutta Burghardt said.
Mr. Honecker, 78, has been charged with responsibility for the shoot-to-kill order at the former East-West German border. At least 200 people who tried to escape were killed trying to cross over.
Bonn spokesman Dieter Vogel said the government had been informed an hour before Mr. Honecker's flight Wednesday morning but issued a protest only yesterday evening, after the information had become public.
Mr. Vogel said the Soviet action was a violation of international law and of the Soviet-German troop withdrawal treaty. More than 300,000 Soviet troops remain in former East Germany, and the government's reticence to protest strongly may be out of caution that their withdrawal could be affected if it pushed too hard for Mr. Honecker.
After 18 years at the top, Mr. Honecker lost power in late 1989 just before the Berlin Wall came down. He was arrested by the East German government a year ago but was allowed to remain free pending trial. He then developed a sudden illness, went to a church retreat and then to the Soviet military hospital at Beelitz, a small town southwest of Berlin.
One of his attorneys, Wolfgang Ziegler, said the Soviet hospital could not handle Mr. Honecker's worsening condition.
"I last saw him last week, and he was in terrible condition. I had never seen him in such a bad state," Mr. Ziegler said.
The Soviet military was apparently unwilling to send Mr. Honecker to a Berlin hospital. Some Soviet military officials have criticized the way former allies such as Mr. Honecker have been abandoned, and they have already given refuge to East German spy chief Markus Wolf.
The escape to Moscow was Mr. Honecker's second rescue by the Soviet military. A Communist Party member since 1929, he had spent nine years in a Nazi prison when the Red Army released him in 1945.
He quickly rose through the ranks of the Communist Party and led the East German youth organization before taking over the top spot in 1971.