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Germany

Fire Sets German-Turkish Race Relations on Edge

A house fire in Germany that took the lives of at least nine Turkish residents has the country increasingly on edge, amid speculation that the blaze was the result of racially motivated arson.

Two Turkish women in headscarves observe the site of the fire

The building, home to a Turkish culture center, previously suffered arson attacks

Four days after a house fire broke out in the western-German port town of Ludwigshafen, investigators were under increasing pressure to determine the cause of the blaze.

A great deal is indeed at stake if, as the Turkish and German media are increasingly speculating, the deadly fire was a racially motivated arson attack. Germans and Turks alike worry that the country is a social tinderbox, and the Ludwigshafen fire the match that could set it alight.

The event has revived memories of a firebomb attack by Germans in 1993 on a house in Solingen. Five Turks were killed in that attack, which made international headlines. About 2.5 million people of Turkish decent call Germany home, making them the largest minority in the country.

State Minister Mustafa Said Yazicioglu, middle, with relatives of the victims and German integration commissioner Maria Böhmer, left

German and Turkish officials visited the scene and called for calm

During a visit to the site with Mustafa Sait Yazicioglu, the Turkish minister responsible for affairs involving Turks living abroad, Maria Böhmer, the German commissioner for integration, urged caution ahead of the investigation.

She called for restraint from the Turkish press, which has been quick to speculate that neo-Nazis were to blame for the blaze. She also told reporters that a fireman who had helped put out the fire had been attacked by Turkish youths the following Tuesday.

The fire broke out on Sunday, Feb. 5. It quickly engulfed the four-story building, which housed a Turkish cultural center and the apartments of two Turkish families, in smoke and flames.

Hate-graffiti and sniffer dogs

People jumped for their lives from the burning building; and in a dramatic scene, a 32-year-old man saved his infant nephew, Onur, by throwing him to a policeman 23 feet below, who caught the child.

Nine people died in the fire, including five children and three mothers under 25, one of whom was pregnant, a member of a local Turkish community group said.

Two girls, aged 8 and 9, have said they saw a man setting fire to something and throwing it into a baby stroller in the hallway of the building. Police were working with the witnesses to develop a sketch of the man.

Policemen are seen with a dog in front of a burnt out house in Ludwigshafen, Germany, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008 where 9 people of Turkish origin were killed in a fire late Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008.

Trained dogs have yet to find traces of arson

It is hoped they will be able to recall enough to produce a portrait, police spokesman Volker Klein told the AP news service.

"Every clue is being taken seriously," he said. However, an initial search with sniffer dogs turned up no trace of substances that might have fed the fire.

News agencies reported Wednesday that neo-Nazi graffiti was found scrawled on the entrance to a Turkish cultural center that was in the building.

The German word for hate, Hass, was written twice on the wall, with the final two letters in the Nazi "SS" rune script, police spokesman Michael Lindner said. He said the graffiti must have been there before the fire because the building had been secured since the blaze on Sunday.

"If the factual cause of the fire is discovered and the necessary steps are taken, it will be easier for Turkish people to be at peace," Yazicioglu said on a visit to the ruins of the block.

Turkish investigators, politicians on the scene

Authorities have already said that two small fires were started in the building in 2006 and added that they were quickly put out by residents. It is not yet clear if they were related to the weekend's fire.

Firefighters inspected the burnt out house in Ludwigshafen on Monday, Feb. 4, 2008. At least nine people, including five children, died in a fire at a four-story apartment building in southwest Germany, police said Monday.

A German fireman was attacked by Turkish youths after the fire

In an unusual move that reflects how much is at stake in the investigation, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, traveling to Germany for security conference, will visit the site of the fire on Thursday. Turkey's ambassador to Germany and Yazicioglu have also taken trips to Ludwigshafen.

Moreover, Turkish officials placed a team of four police officers from Turkey be part of the team that investigates the fire, ostensibly to assure fairness in the investigation.

"Our people should not have any concerns about the investigation," Yazicioglu told Turkish reporters after inspecting the site. "The investigation will be concluded in a way that leaves no room for any doubt."

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble on Tuesday urged people not to jump to any conclusions as to the cause.

"It is terrible misfortune, it is really a catastrophe, but there is currently -- so far as I know --absolutely no basis for any wide-ranging assumptions," Schäuble told Südwestrundfunk radio.

"We cannot let ourselves become a divided society"

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing lawmakers at Parliament in Ankara, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007.

A site visit by Turkey's Erdogan shows the gravity of the case

"I pray to heaven that it is not arson," Yasar Bilgin, the head of the Council of German-born Turks, told the online version of Der Spiegel newsmagazine. "Such an act would be devastating for Turks and Germans who are expected to live side by side. We cannot let ourselves become a divided society."

Mustafa Baklan, who has become the unofficial spokesperson for the extended family whose members died in the fire, agreed.

"Germany is our home," he told the Web site. "We don't want any harassment. We don't want to place blame; we have to deal with this horrible situation together. Germans need not fear us."

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