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Obama visits former Nazi concentration camp


Weimar (Germany) : US President Barack Obama paid his respects to victims of the Holocaust Friday when he toured a former Nazi concentration camp during a visit to Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel accompanied the president on his stroll around Buchenwald, where 56,000 prisoners died before the camp was liberated by US forces April 5, 1945.

Earlier, the two leaders held talks in Dresden where they vowed to redouble their efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East and pledged to work together to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran.

Obama made a 24-hour stopover in Germany en route to France where he will attend ceremonies in Normandy Saturday marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which eventually led to the end of World War II in Europe.

Obama said he had never visited a former Nazi concentration camp, and wanted the opportunity to “reflect on this very difficult history”.

“More than half a century later our grief and our outrage have not diminished. I will not forget what I have seen today,” the president said.

Merkel spoke of “the obligations placed on Germany as a result of our past”.

At the gates of the camp the president met Buchenwald survivors and also shook hands with a group of German students and young people doing voluntary work at the camp.

Inside, Obama and Merkel inspected the crematorium, guard towers and barbed wire fences together with Israeli Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Betrand Herz, head of the international committee of Buchenwald survivors.

The group placed white roses on a plain metal plaque bearing the names of the 50 countries from where the 250,000 prisoners were brought and were kept under inhuman conditions at the camp.

By the end of World War II, Buchenwald was the largest Nazi concentration camp on German soil. Obama’s great-uncle, Charles Payne, was amongst the soldiers who liberated a subsidiary camp of Buchenwald in 1945.

The visit was proposed by the White House, apparently as a gesture of balance in the Arab-Israeli conflict after Obama reached out to Muslims in a keynote speech in Cairo Thursday.

By visiting the camp, Obama was able to show Jews that the Holocaust is not forgotten and that the US will always speak out against those with malign intentions towards Israel.

In a joint news conference after the political talks in Dresden, Obama called for concerted action to push forward the Middle East peace process. “The moment is now,” he said.

“To do this we need strong partners” such as Germany, he said, adding he was under no illusions how difficult it will be to find a peaceful solution.

Merkel said Germany was interested in having a secure state of Israel as well as a viable Palestinian state.

The talks also covered efforts to reach a new global agreement on climate change, the situation on international financial markets, NATO and Afghanistan.

Obama said his discussions with Merkel on Iran were held “in a broader context of avoiding an arms race in the Middle East”.

“I am committed to engage in serious dialogue and negotiations with Iran,” he said, adding that bringing Iran to the negotiating table “can’t be done in isolation”, but needed the help of America’s partners.

Obama said the two leaders also discussed “the very difficult issue” of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, which he hopes to close by 2010.

The US has approached European governments about taking over some of the inmates, but Obama said he had not asked Merkel “for hard commitments and she has not given us any hard commitments”.

After their meeting the two leaders joined in a prayer for peace at the Church of Our Lady, or Frauenkirche, which was destroyed by Allied bombing during the war and later rebuilt with worldwide donations.

“All of humanity hopes for peace in a place like this where everyone can see that reconciliation between former enemies is possible,” Bishop Jochen Bohl said at the brief ceremony.

Obama was due to round off his stay in Germany with a visit to the US medical centre at Landstuhl near Frankfurt to meet American soldiers injured on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.