Questions Remain as Town Remembers Attack on Foreigners | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.01.2006
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Questions Remain as Town Remembers Attack on Foreigners

A decade after a fire in an asylum-seekers' home in northern Germany killed ten people, mystery still surrounds the circumstances. Suspicions persist that it was a racially-motivated attack.


The fire in Lübeck followed a string of similar attacks in the early 1990s

It was an icy night in Lübeck on Jan. 18, 1996, when 10 refugees were killed after a fire broke out in their building on the Hafenstrasse. Thirty-eight others were badly injured as they attempted to jump out of windows to escape the flames. The asylum-seekers came from Angola, Zaire, Syria, Poland and Lebanon.

As the town of Lübeck remembers the 10th anniversary of the harrowing event on Wednesday, many questions remain unanswered.

For one, it still remains unclear who carried out the attack. At the time, the first thing that jumped to the minds of many was whether it was a xenophobic crime -- for good reason.

Brandanschlag Solingen Rechtsextremismus Ausländerfeindlichkeit

The attack in Solingen that killed five was one of the worst

Germany saw a string of racially-motivated attacks on asylum-seekers' homes and other institutes housing foreigners in the early 1990s. The most gruesome was an arson attack in May 1993 on a two-storey building housing a Turkish family in Solingen in the Ruhr industrial region of western Germany, killing five members.

Suspicio n s, arrests

Despite parallels between the crime in Solingen and other German towns and the one in Lübeck, investigators have failed to shed light on the tragedy.

At the time, police in Lübeck did arrest four young men from Grevesmühlen, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in former communist East Germany, who they came across as they extinguished the fire.

The four, who were believed to belong to the right-wing scene, were said to have traces of ash on their eyes and hair. But, they were later released after a police patrol confirmed their alibi.

Der Libanese Safwan Eid

Police suspected Safwan Eid of carrying out the attack

Investigators then focused on 20-year-old Lebanese national Safwan Eid, an inhabitant of the asylum-seekers' home himself. A paramedic testified that Eid had said "we did it" as he sat in an ambulance with burn wounds during the night of the fire.

The police and the state prosecutor believed the witness and arrested Eid two days after the attack. Investigators said the motive was a row that Eid had had with neighbors in the tightly-packed home. Eid denied the allegations.

Eid was cleared of all charges after a trial in a Lübeck court half a year after the attack. In a further trial in 1999, Eid was once let off for lack of evidence.

Not e n ough do n e to n ail perpetrators?

That has further fuelled suspicions that police didn't pursue investigations thoroughly enough against the four initial suspects from the right-wing scene.

"The files provide sufficient incriminating evidence against the four," Gabriele Heinecke, Eid's then lawyer, told German news agency dpa recently. She added that one of the young suspects had also later confessed the crime, but the state prosecution considered the statements to be false because the man had partly contradicted himself.

Weinende Frau vor ausgebranntem Asylbewerberheim in Lübeck. Bei dem Anschag kamen neun Menschen ums Leben.

Most of the survivors of the tragedy have moved away from Lübeck

Heinecke pointed out that the state prosecutor still hadn't cleared up questions such as the death of one of the home's inhabitants, whose charred body was found at the entrance. The exact time and cause of the fire still remained unsolved, Heinecke added.

No remi n ders

A decade on, remnants of the crime are hard to find in Lübeck.

The survivors of the tragedy have moved away, though they are still in Germany and living in their own homes, some with German passports.

The asylum-seekers' home was torn down years ago. All that recalls the 10 victims is a memorial stone.

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