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Net closes on alleged Nazi death camp guard

Washington — The net appears to be closing on alleged war criminal John Demjanjuk, one of the few high-profile Nazi holocaust suspects still thought to be at large.

The 88-year-old is wanted in Germany for helping to kill 29,000 Jews in seven months, when he served as a guard at Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943.

Dubbed "Ivan the Terrible," Demjanjuk currently lives in Ohio, but now faces extradition to Germany.

Authorities in Washington earlier this week said they would "support" Berlin’s efforts to try the former camp guard.

"The US Government … has been in close contact with our German counterparts on this matter and we will continue to offer our support and assistance," a Justice Department spokeswoman told AFP.

The US authorities did not say if Demjanjuk would be extradited to Germany from the Cleveland suburb where he currently lives.

"It’s something we’ve been working on for a very long time," said Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s special investigations office.

On Wednesday, Germany’s Justice Ministry said the US would now either expel Demjanjuk or extradition would be sought.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk moved to the United States in 1952 with his family, changing his name from Ivan to John and becoming a motor mechanic.

In 1977, former inmates at the infamous Treblinka death camp identified Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible" during a US Justice Department investigation.

He was extradited from the United States to Israel in 1986, where he was sentenced to death two years later.

The case later collapsed amid doubts about Demjanjuk’s identity, prompting his return to the United States, where he was put under house arrest.

Rosenbaum told AFP Demjanjuk is now considered "stateless" after being stripped of his US citizenship in 2002 for lying about his wartime activities.

His US citizenship was stripped on grounds that included "willing" service in a Nazi unit that was "dedicated to exploiting and exterminating" Jewish civilians in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Demjanjuk tried in vain to recover his US citizenship at the country’s Supreme Court, which rejected his bid last year.

According to Peter Black, a historian at Washington’s Holocaust Museum, Demjanjuk’s position is clear.

"His status in the US is that of a deportable alien, he is ineligible to stay in the US. You can take it from there," Black said.

Although Demjanjuk is considered one of the youngest Nazi suspects at large, Black pointed out he will be 89 later this month.

"Whether he lives long enough to go on trial really depends on how quickly the German authorities move and how quickly he actually goes to trial.

"There seems to be no question, at least from the arrest order, that the Germans are serious about this," he added.

On Friday, Demjanjuk’s wife Vera told Germany’s Bild daily that the couple "now only wanted to die in peace."

But that has looked unlikely since charges against him were revived in a 1999 investigation, which turned up evidence that he had worked as a guard at three other Nazi death camps.

US investigators brought together witness accounts, which described how Demjanjuk was seen at Sobibor, kicking Jews or hitting them with his rifle butt to get them out of railway wagons more quickly.

Virginie Montet/AFP/Expatica