PARIS, July 6 (JTA) — French Jewish leaders are outraged that Syrian President Hafez Assad’s visit next week coincides with the anniversary of a World War II roundup of French Jews. On July 16-17, Assad is scheduled to meet with French President Jacques Chirac. Assad is accused of sheltering Alois Brunner, the last leading Nazi still believed to be on the loose — and one who played a central role in the deportation of Jews from France. The scheduled meeting would come 56 years after Vichy police forced 13,000 French Jews into the Vel d’Hiv stadium before deporting them to Auschwitz. Late President Francois Mitterrand made the anniversary of the arrests a national memorial day. CRIF, France’s umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations, said in a statement that Assad’s visit was an “unfortunate coincidence” because a notorious Nazi war criminal “has been living peacefully in Syria for a number of years.” CRIF officials called on Chirac to request Brunner’s extradition even before Assad set foot in France “so that he can finally be tried in France for crimes against humanity.” But it is unlikely that Chirac will heed the call because he has been fostering closer ties with the Arab world and such a request could upset relations with Syria. During a 1996 trip to the Middle East, Chirac said he brought up the case of Brunner with Assad after pressure from Jewish groups in France. Brunner, an Austrian citizen, served during World War II as personal secretary to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s chief aide. The person whom Eichmann once described as his “best man” orchestrated the deaths of some 128,000 Jews from Austria, Greece, France and Slovakia during the war years. Brunner was commander of the infamous Drancy transit camp outside Paris, where some 62,000 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France were detained before being sent to Auschwitz. Brunner disappeared at the end of the war, but resurfaced in the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt. He then moved to Syria, where the government used him to train secret police. Brunner was condemned to death in absentia by two French courts in 1954. Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld have led an often spectacular campaign for several years to win Brunner’s extradition. As far back as 1992, diplomats in Syria maintained that Brunner was dead. According to various reports, Brunner has been spotted in recent years in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cambodia. If Brunner is alive, he would be 86.
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