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Europe

Obama and Merkel visit Buchenwald concentration camp

Video by Florence VILLEMINOT , Jonathan WALSH

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-06-06

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany on Friday following a press conference during which they pledged their commitment to Middle East peace.

AFP - US President Barack Obama vowed Friday to seize the moment to advance Middle East peace, underlining the historic commitment to Israel with a solemn visit to a former Nazi camp.

Flanked by Nobel survivor and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama became the first US president to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany.

Dressed in a dark suit and burgundy tie, Obama listened intently to Wiesel's recollections of camp life and laid a white rose at a memorial plaque for the camp's more than 56,000 victims before taking a tour of its barracks and crematorium.

Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald's complex of camps in April 1945 by US troops who included Obama's great-uncle, Charlie Payne.

Payne, 84 and frail, decided not to accompany the president to Buchenwald, but will join Obama's party at ceremonies for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France Saturday.

Obama arrived in Germany late Thursday after a landmark address in Egypt to the Muslim world in which he offered a new partnership with the United States.

On Friday, he said after talks in Dresden with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he believed the US was forging a path to relaunch the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians but that it could not do it alone.

"I think the moment is now for us to act on what we all know to be the truth, which is that each side is going to have to make some difficult compromises," Obama said.

"Ultimately, the United States can't force peace upon the parties. But what we've tried to do is to clear away some of the misunderstandings so that we can at least begin to have frank dialogue."

He reiterated his demand for Israel to stop settlement expansion on the West Bank but added that he was "very sympathetic" to political pressures faced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And he urged Palestinians and Arab neighbours to do their part by making "tough choices" to defuse the situation in the region.

Merkel said she believed Obama's efforts could make headway toward a two-state solution in the Middle East.

"I believe that with the new American administration, with President Barack Obama, there is actually a unique opportunity now to see to it that this peace process -- or let's perhaps be more careful -- this negotiation process to be revived again," she said.

In his speech at the University of Cairo, Obama pointedly mentioned Buchenwald and called attempts to deny the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust "baseless, ignorant, and hateful".

German media saw the visit as a conciliatory gesture to Israel and US Jews after his criticism of Israeli policy in Cairo.

Obama's stops in Dresden, Buchenwald and Normandy together form a poignant two-day mission of World War II remembrance.

Dresden was controversially flattened by Allied bombing in the final months of the war, killing an estimated 35,000 people.

The city has been lovingly restored in the intervening years, and Merkel led Obama to the Baroque Church of Our Lady which was destroyed in the war and reopened in 2005 after a lavish reconstruction financed with donations from around the globe.

Obama remains extremely popular in Germany, nearly a year after he drew a rapturous crowd of 200,000 people to the streets of Berlin as a presidential candidate.

Smiling warmly, he and Merkel played down any rumours of a rift over issues ranging from the planned closing of the US anti-terror lockup at Guantanamo Bay to a recent negotiations on rescuing the European arm of General Motors.

Calling Merkel "my friend," Obama said he had neither asked for nor received any hard commitments from the chancellor on taking Guantanamo detainees.

Although she frequently called for the camp's closure, Merkel is leery of accepting potentially dangerous inmates four months before a national election.

Obama also praised European efforts on fighting climate change and said the United States was now willing to now willing to lead the way.

The president was due to pay a visit to wounded US troops at the Landstuhl medical centre in western Germany before heading to France later Friday.

Date created : 2009-06-05

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