London (CNSNews.com) - Nazi-hunters have welcomed a report affirming their long-held view that one of the most senior Nazis alive today is living in the Syrian capital, Damascus, under an assumed name.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center plans to urge Israel to make the presence in Syria of Alois Brunner an issue in peace talks with Syria, one of the organization's directors, Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, told CNSNews.com Monday.
Syria has for years denied rumors that the former SS officer has been hiding out in the country, shrugging off extradition appeals from Germany, Austria and France and strong-worded statements from the European Parliament.
Der Spiegel reports today that a lengthy investigation by a French judge has revealed that Brunner, 97, is living at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus, under the name of Georg Fischer.
Speaking by telephone from Zagreb, Croatia, Zuroff said the United States would also be approached through the State Department and urged to intervene.
The Clinton administration has been nudging Israel and Syria towards resuming peace talks. Negotiations were frozen in 1996, following violence in Lebanon former Prime Minister Shimon Peres accused the Syrians of encouraging.
Zuroff said the center was "very encouraged" by the new report.
"The Simon Wiesenthal Center is convinced Brunner is alive in Syria, and we're going to renew our efforts to have him put on trial in the wake of the Spiegel report," he told CNSNews.com.
Brunner, an Austrian by birth, was a close associate of Adolf Eichmann, the driving force behind Hitler's Holocaust. Eichmann was kidnapped in Latin America, tried and executed in Israel in 1961.
Brunner has been accused of deporting some 130,000 Jews in France, Greece, Slovakia and Austria to Nazi extermination camps. In the 1950s a French war crimes court sentenced him to death in absentia.
An investigating magistrate in Paris now wants him returned to face trial for sending more than 200 French Jewish schoolchildren to their subsequent deaths in Auschwitz, while he served as commander of a transit camp near the French capital.
The trial is likely to begin next year, whether or not Brunner is in the stand. President Jacques Chirac is believed to have raised the subject during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Hafez el-Assad.
After the Second World War, Brunner reportedly hid out in Germany under the alias Alois Schmaldienst. He fled to Syria in 1954, and is believed to have remained there ever since, as an advisor to the Syrian authorities.
Several years ago, German prosecutors offered a reward of $320,000 for information leading to Brunner's arrest, and he was named as one of the 12 fugitives most wanted by the international criminal police organization, Interpol.
At one time it was reported that Brunner had moved to Argentina. Sightings of him were also claimed in Chile, Brazil and Cambodia. He was said to have died in 1992. But Nazi hunters - notably Simon Wiesenthal and Serge Karlsfeld, whose father was a Brunner victim - insist he continues to live under state patronage in Syria.
According to one report, Brunner is easily identified because he lost several fingers and the sight in one eye as a result of letter bombs sent to him in Damascus, allegedly by Israeli intelligence services.
Greek governments, which traditionally enjoy warm relations with Syria, have come under fire over the years for not doing more to pressure Damascus to answer questions about Brunner's whereabouts.
Almost the entire Jewish population of Thessalonika in northern Greece, some 43,000 people, was deported to Nazi death camps within just two months in 1943, allegedly under orders from Brunner.
The leader of the Jewish community of Thessalonika was quoted by a Greek news agency recently as accusing the Syrians of sheltering Brunner in exchange for his assistance in setting up a secret service agency there.