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Thursday August 13 7:12 AM EDT Swiss view Holocaust accord with relief, wariness

Swiss view Holocaust accord with relief, wariness

By Michael Shields

ZURICH, Switzerland (Reuters) - Swiss officials on Thursday greeted a $1.25 billion deal by the country's two big banks to settle Holocaust-era claims with a mixture of relief and wariness about who would end up footing the bill.

UBS AG and Credit Suisse Group reached the accord on Wednesday with lawyers representing Holocaust victims and the World Jewish Congress in two days of talks in New York.

But the banks said they assumed other Swiss companies and institutions would help finance the payment, which averts the threat of Swiss bank boycotts by U.S. states and cities.

``We have always said that we were negotiating on our own behalf, but we must clearly note that no solution can be reached without bringing in the various parties that have been involved,'' said Bernhard Stettler, spokesman for UBS AG.

``We expect that those addressed will show their appreciation,'' he told Swiss radio.

The New York talks were convened by a U.S. federal judge handling lawsuits against the banks by families of Holocaust victims demanding the return of money from dormant wartime accounts.

The Swiss National Bank, criticized for its wartime purchases of looted gold from Nazi Germany, was noncommittal about prospects that it would contribute to the settlement that also gets it off the hook of a lawsuit.

``We certainly welcome the fact that the banks managed to reach an agreement regarding the class-action lawsuits brought against them in the United States and that the threat of a boycott against Swiss banks has thus been averted,'' SNB spokesman Werner Abegg said.

``We have not, however, been party to these negotiations and have not given a mandate to anybody to represent us at these negotiations. We cannot further comment on this settlement before we have detailed information about it.''

The SNB has already donated 100 million Swiss francs ($67.16 million) to a humanitarian fund totaling 270 million francs set up by Swiss banks and businesses to aid needy Holocaust victims and their families.

Industry groups took a similar cautious line, saying they needed time to review the deal before deciding how to respond.

Coalition politicians in Berne had mixed emotions about the accord, which helps patch up ties with Washington that were strained by the prospect of U.S. boycotts of Swiss banks.

Radical Democratic Party President Franz Steinegger, who had taken a hard line against using taxpayer money to finance any settlement, expressed both relief and regret.

``This is an extraordinarily high sum,'' he told Swiss Radio, adding he would have preferred to see any deal based on the findings of an independent commission now auditing banks' books for dormant wartime accounts.

``It is also disturbing, of course, that the combination of class-action lawsuits and extortionary acts by U.S. states accomplished their goal, and that is questionable legally and politically.''

Christian Democratic People's Party President Adalbert Durrer said he was happy the banks had settled directly the class-action lawsuits against them, but that Switzerland still had to press ahead with the bank audit and a review of its wartime role as a neutral and financial center.

Ueli Maurer, head of the populist Swiss People's Party, saw the deal as a bad sign that Switzerland could be blackmailed.

``We must stick to the point that neither the Swiss state nor the National Bank can be drawn into this,'' he told the radio.

Socialist Party President Ursula Koch said she was satisfied by the accord, which removed U.S. pressure on the country.

But she also stressed that Switzerland still had to finish u taking a hard look at its past, especially its anti-Jewish wartime refugee policy that turned back thousands of Jews as the Holocaust raged.

``We have to come to grips with our history,'' she said.


 

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