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German in dock for 'racist' bombing 18 years on

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Düsseldorf (Germany) (AFP)

Nearly 18 years after a bombing at a German commuter rail station targeting Jewish immigrants, the alleged neo-Nazi accused of the crime went on trial Thursday.

Ralf Spies, 51, is facing 12 counts of attempted murder and a charge of causing an explosion for the attack in the western city of Duesseldorf on the afternoon of July 27, 2000.

Spies was known to police as a right-wing extremist at the time and ran a military surplus store near the scene of the crime, which shocked Germany and drew international condemnation.

Investigators say the former soldier has a swastika and a well-known Nazi fortress tattooed on his body.

"The accused is believed to have exploited the defencelessness of the victims and acted out of racist motives," chief prosecutor Ralf Herrenbrueck told reporters outside the courtroom.

Ten eastern European migrants -- six of them Jews from the former Soviet Union -- were injured in the bombing.

All the victims were on their way back from a German language course when the explosive, hung in a plastic bag on a fence near the Wehrhahn station entrance, went off, sparking panic.

A 26-year-old Ukrainian pregnant woman lost her unborn child and had to undergo emergency surgery after the blast ripped off one of her feet.

Her 28-year-old husband suffered wounds over his entire body from metal fragments unleashed in the explosion and was in a critical condition for several days.

- 'Shameful and aggravating' -

As the trial got underway, Spies denied the charges and said he did not know who had carried out the bombing, DPA news agency reported.

He told the court that on the day of the attack he had been at a tattoo studio, on a walk with his dog and then back at home at the time of the blast.

Duesseldorf police launched a sweeping investigation, following up on hundreds of clues, more than 900 tips from the public and testimony from over 1,000 people without producing a major lead.

They had even questioned Spies for several hours and placed him under surveillance soon after the bombing before determining they did not have enough evidence to arrest him.

Spies told the court that immediately after the attack, a police officer had told him, "There are a lot of people calling and saying you're behind it".

The leader of Duesseldorf's Jewish community, Michael Szentei-Heise, said Thursday he was "greatly relieved" that the case was finally being tried.

"Of course the failures of the investigation are shameful and aggravating -- the fact it took so long until the alleged perpetrator was finally captured. But we don't accuse anyone of intentionally standing in the way of the probe," he told news website RP Online.

The investigation, long dormant, was only revived in 2011, after a series of 10 murders by a band of neo-Nazis.

Known as NSU, short for National Socialist Underground, the cell consisted of a trio of far-right militants who shot dead eight men with Turkish roots, a Greek migrant and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007.

While no link was established between the NSU's killings and the Duesseldorf bombing, they spurred investigators to take the extremist threat more seriously.

- 'Bragged' in prison -

A breakthrough only came in June 2014 when a prison inmate told police that Spies -- who was briefly in jail over an unrelated offence -- had "bragged" about masterminding the attack, using an anti-immigrant racial slur.

His defence attorney, Olaf Heuvens, has sought to raise doubts about the damning testimony against Spies.

"Why should my client tell an inmate he barely knew something like that?" Heuvens told DPA.

However an ex-girlfriend of the defendant has told investigators that she saw in his kitchen the homemade pipe bomb, constructed using the explosives from up to six military-issue hand grenades.

Prosecutors say he set it off using a remote-controlled detonator.

Police resumed the investigation once again and last February, after Spies's release from prison, swooped on his home in a Duesseldorf suburb and took him into custody. He was charged in December.

Spies faces life imprisonment, although convicts in Germany are usually released after 15 years.

The trial is expected to last until at least July.

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