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Belgian minister quits in SS row

Sauwens resigns  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A Belgian minister has resigned after a row sparked by his attendance at a weekend meeting of Belgian former members of Hitler's Waffen SS.

Johan Sauwens, interior minister in Belgium's Flanders regional administration, had said earlier he would stand down if his party demanded.

A spokesman for his Flemish nationalist party, Volksunie, told Reuters: "He offered his resignation to the party tonight and (the party council) accepted it."

Sauwens had come under intense pressure to quit from parties across Belgium's political spectrum.

Foreign Minister Louis Michel said it was "unthinkable" that Sauwens could remain in his post. "The damage he has already the image of the country is very high," Michel told RTL television.

During the veterans' reunion, one speaker called for a "greater Germany."

Sauwens earlier apologised for what he called an "error of judgment" and left his fate to party mandarins.

"The image that could arise...that I am a hidden sympathiser of the far right or a Nazi boy, is not correct," he told a news conference earlier.

The disgraced minister has been a member for 30 years of the Sint Maartens Trust, composed of former members of Hitler's Waffen SS and others who fought with the Nazis in World War Two.

Volksunie governs in a Flemish coalition with the Socialist, Green and Liberal parties. They had all demanded Sauwen's resignation, as had the Christian Democrat opposition.

Flanders is the most populous of Belgium's three self-governing regions, divided along linguistic lines, and is home to most of the Dutch-speakers who make up around two-thirds of the country's 10 million population.

Sauwens admitted that he had been misinformed about the true nature of the meeting, and said he walked out after one speaker called for the re-creation of a "greater Germany."

According to Belgian news reports, Sauwens joined the group believing it to be a "nonpolitical organisation acting above all to help ex-volunteers from the eastern front."

The Sint Maartens Trust staged the Antwerp gathering, which was attended by SS veterans from around Europe, far-right politicians and uniformed neo-Nazis.

His attendance provoked domestic and international outrage, with Flemish Prime Minister Patrick Dewael seeking "some explanation."

In a statement from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organisation in Los Angeles, Rabbi Abraham Cooper had said: "If the minister of the interior cannot commit to totally disassociate himself from further contacts with those countrymen who wore the SS insignia, he should immediately resign or be removed from his post."

Belgian Federal Government
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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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