German official quits over 'execution'

July 05, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters resigned yesterday in an expanding controversy over the death of a terrorist who reportedly was shot in cold blood at point-blank range by federal agents.

Wolfgang Grams, 40, an alleged Red Army Faction member, died June 27 as the interior ministry's elite anti-terrorist unit tried to arrest him and his girlfriend, Birgit Hogefeld, 36, at a train station in eastern Germany.

Since then, suspicions have mounted that the security unit, known under the acronym GSG-9, killed Mr. Grams to avenge the death of a GSG-9 officer who died during the operation.

In a hastily called press conference late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Seiters, 55, conceded it had become clear "mistakes" had been made in the mission. But he refused to answer questions and did not offer any details about Mr. Grams' death or that of the GSG-9 agent.

"In Germany, we have the concept of political responsibility," he said. "So who will take the responsibility if not the political minister. Personally, I don't have anything to apologize for."

He said he was resigning to save his family from the pressure of an investigation.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl at first refused to accept his resignation. But after an hour of discussion, Mr. Seiters said, the chancellor relented. There was no immediate word on who would replace Mr. Seiters.

At the end of the week, Mr. Seiters had come under increasing political pressure over what was beginning to look like a coverup of the facts of Mr. Grams' death.

How he died became suspect last Tuesday when an autopsy indicated he had been shot at close range. The press began calling it an "execution" by the GSG-9.

By Thursday, a TV magazine show had found a kiosk attendant who reportedly saw Mr. Grams shot as he lay on the rail station's platform at the edge of rail tracks, his gun six feet away.

The influential Der Spiegel magazine in an issue out today reports that an anti-terrorist squad witness said that Mr. Grams was lying unarmed on the platform when a GSG-9 officer knelt on his chest and shot him in the head.

GSG-9 had mounted a massive effort to arrest Mr. Grams and Ms. Hogefeld, who were both wanted in the 1989 auto-bomb death of a West German banker. They were apparently set up by a police informer who met them at the train station cafe in Bad Kleinem, a town of 3,500 in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The federal prosecution officials said last Sunday that Ms. Hogefeld began firing first. They corrected themselves on Thursday. Ms. Hogefeld, who remains in custody, says that she was unarmed. She has filed a lawsuit against the government.

The Red Army Faction was one of the deadliest leftist terrorist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, implicated in the murders of politicians, diplomats and industrialists.

Draconian crackdowns and the arrest of their leaders crippled the faction. Their leading "commando" group today is thought to have 20 to 35 members.

Michael Newrzella, the 25-year-old officer killed at Bad Kleinem, was the first death of a GSG-9 agent since its formation in 1973 after the Palestinian attack on Israelis at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

GSG-9 participated in the rescue of 89 people from a hijacked Lutfhansa at Mogadishu Airport in 1973. They have been involved in many operations against the Red Army Faction in Germany.

Mr. Seiters began his political career in 1958 with his election to parliament's lower house.

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