Stories from Belgium

Patton ceremony marks end of World War anniversary

By David Fox
BRUSSELS, Dec 7 (Reuter) – A ceremony on Friday at the grave of one of World War Two’s most flamboyant characters, “Old Blood and Guts” General George S. Patton, will round off a year of events marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
Hundreds of children will gather with veterans from across the world at the U.S. military cemetery at Hamm in Luxembourg, to honour Patton, buried there.
U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, Clay Constantinou, said Friday’s ceremony symbolised the passing of the flame to future generations.
“The next significant anniversary (the 75th) will see fewer veterans so it is important to keep the message and lessons of the war alive,” he said.
The Third Army general lies alongside thousands of the men he commanded and who were killed in the notorious Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
The ceremony will be the last official event in a year that has seen large-scale public displays of remembrance ranging from a flypast of World War Two aircraft over London to a huge parade of veterans in Paris.
Across Europe old soldiers — both victors and vanquished — came together to recall the dark days between 1939 and 1945.
Patton, who got his nickname after he told his troops it took “blood and guts” to win battles, inspired his men, but has been accused by some historians of being a reckless commander who sought personal glory at great risk.
The cigar-chomping general had an unmatched battle record.
By the end of the war his Third Army troops had taken more territory and towns and had killed, wounded or captured more Nazi German soldiers — nearly one and a half million — than any other Allied force.
Just two weeks after breaking out of the Normandy bridgehead in 1944 his army had captured all of the Brittany peninsula and advanced further and faster than any army in history.
Ordered to halt from taking Paris to give the honour to the French, Patton declared he could “take Paris by telephone”.
Patton’s career ended with a mighty indiscretion. At a press conference he implied Nazi politics were not much different from the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, and he was sacked.
On December 9, 1945 while being driven to a pheasant shoot — he was a crack shot who represented the United States at the 1921 Olympic games — his car collided with a U.S. Army truck near Mannheim in Germany and he broke his neck.
He died 12 days later and was buried beneath a small white cross marked simply “George S. Patton Jr., General, 3rd Army”.
(c) Reuters Limited 1995


Belgian war collaboration trial stirs old emotions.

By David Fox
BRUSSELS, Dec 7 (Reuter) – A Belgian military court began hearing evidence on Thursday in the case of a woman executed 50 years ago for collaborating with German Nazis in World War Two.
The case of Irma Laplasse, whose treason cost seven Belgian resistance fighters their lives, is far more complex a matter than a “simple” miscarriage of justice, observers say.
“It isn’t about treason,” said a lawyer at the Palace of Justice where the case is being heard. “It is about whether treason can be forgiven.”
Before the court session began, police separated two small groups of pro- and anti-amnesty demonstrators as they chanted slogans and waved banners.
The court, chaired by Jos Durant, was convened after former Justice Minister Melchior Wathelet last year went against rulings issued by predecessors and ordered the case re-opened.
Belgium has long wrestled with the dilemma of whether to grant a general amnesty to thousands of people accused of collaborating with German occupation forces during the war.
The issue remains sensitive with most of the political parties in Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking half of Belgium, backing an amnesty that goes beyond what French-speaking Walloons in south Belgium will concede.
Newspapers have devoted pages to the Laplasse affair, debating whether she was a traitor or just a devoted mother.
Laplasse, then 41 and a German sympathiser, appealed for help from the Germans after resistance fighters arrested her 15-year-old son.
One resistance fighter was killed during the ensuing battle at the local resistance’s headquarters and six others were executed after being captured by German forces.
Laplasse later admitted to having told the Germans where the resistance fighters were hiding and was executed. Her supporters say she was pressured into confessing and say they have new evidence to support this which will be presented to the court.
Over 400,000 Belgians were investigated for collaboration after the war, military records show. Some 242 were executed, including four women, but many found guilty of lesser collaboration were stripped of civil rights, had property confiscated and some even harried into leaving their towns.
(c) Reuters Limited 1995


Belgian war trial verdict ‘a typical compromise’

By David Fox
BRUSSELS, Feb 14 (Reuter) – A Belgian military court ruled on Wednesday that a Flemish woman who betrayed a local resistance group during World War Two in order to save her son had been guilty of treason, but should not have been executed.
The court said Irma Laplasse, who was executed in 1945 aged 41, had no way of knowing her betrayal would lead to the deaths of seven resistance fighters in East Flanders.
The verdict was described as “a typical Belgian compromise” by the Vlaams Blok, the extremist Flemish party which has been campaigning for a general amnesty for Belgians who collaborated with Germany during the war.
The military court, reviewing the case after years of public and political pressure, agreed with evidence given to a Canadian military tribunal in 1945.
That tribunal heard Laplasse had told the German garrison at Oostduinkerk the whereabouts of the resistance headquarters in order to rescue her son, who had been “arrested” because of the family’s admitted German sympathies.
But the court said she could not be blamed for the Germans killing one “white brigade” resistance fighter and executing six others as a result.
Laplasse’s family and supporters have maintained her confession had been made under pressure and sought to have her posthumously pardoned.
The verdict lays to rest one of the most controversial treason cases of Belgium’s bitter post war reckoning, but academics and politicians say it will only drive a deeper wedge into the Flemish/Walloon divide that splits this country along language lines.
“This is definitely a political verdict,” said Filip De Man, a Vlaams Blok parliamentarian who was present for the verdict. The Vlaams Blok, which campaigns for an autonomous state, vowed to keep on fighting for general amnesty.
Over half a million Belgians — mainly Dutch speakers from Flanders — were investigated for collaboration with the Germans after World War Two, thousands had property or rights taken away and 456 were executed for treason.
There were collaborators on the Walloon side as well, but academics say French speakers tended to deal with traitors “their own way”, whereas Dutch speakers needed to be jollied along by law.
Little new evidence was heard during the review of the case over the past two months and the panel of judges spent most of the time examining documents from the original hearing.
After the verdict, Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Henri Pachiarski said he was pleased the court had not quashed the conviction.
“They (collaborators) were not only fascists, they were traitors to the whole of Belgium,” he said.
(c) Reuters Limited 1996


Bikers prepare rough ride for new EU motorcycle laws.

By David Fox
BRUSSELS, Feb 29 (Reuter) – In a dark Brussels bar leather-clad, long-haired men with goatees plan a campaign against European bureaucracy.
Smoking roll-your-own cigarettes and struggling to make themselves heard over rock music blaring from the stereo, a group of bikers prepares to do battle with the European Union over what they see as a looming infringement of their freedom.
Their jackets adorned with drawings of winged death’s heads, outrageous bikes and scantily clad women against a patchwork of national flags, they are rebels with a cause — sworn to preserve their “easy rider” lifestyle.
This unlikely group of lobbyists — some 30 bikers representing 18 groups from 16 countries — gathered in Brussels last weekend to coordinate strategy.
Staying at a youth hostel in the centre of town, the delegates — aged 30 to 40 — lived on the cheap and spent time away from the meeting swapping biking stories over beers.
Their campaign is aimed against European Commission plans for laws that will make it illegal to change manufacturers’ specifications, thus outlawing at a stroke the painstaking customisation favoured by bike enthusiasts the world over.
Keijo Lumme, representing Finland’s motorcyclists, accused the EU of trying to “homogenise” Europeans.
“The whole idea of having a bike is to express your personality through it,” he said. “Now they are trying to stop us from changing the handlebars or the forks or the engine… where will it stop?”
Edwin Hofbauer, an Austrian who is every inch of his six-foot-six frame the archetypal leather-clad biker, agrees.
“The manufacturers wouldn’t recognise my bike if I drove into their factory,” he said. “Why should I not be allowed to customise my machine?”
Simon Milward is general secretary of the Federation of European Motorcyclists (FEM), one of two full-time staff.
He coordinates the various Motorcyle Action Group (MAG) affiliates so the organisation speaks with a common voice — a difficult task since motorcycling, as with many other issues, splits Europe into various camps.
The most divisive issue facing bikers is helmets but the FEM has steered around direct confrontation by saying member nations should decide their own policy.
There are other issues. The Irish MAG, led by computer expert David French, favours compulsory training before motorcyclists are given a licence but the British, headed by Neil Liversidge, say that smacks of government interference.
Liversidge, who describes himself as a political orphan, is the most emotive of the lobbyists, calling motorcycle legislation “a human rights issue”.
“We are already persecuted by police because of the way we dress or cut our hair,” he said. “We need less laws, not more.
After customising — officially known as tampering — the biggest issue facing bikers is noise, with EU ministers calling for a ban from next year on engines whose roar exceeds 80 decibels.
This will, the bikers say, drive traditional favourites such as Harley-Davidson, Ducati, Moto Guzzi and other air-cooled engines off the road.
“They want everyone to be riding around on cloned Japanese bikes,” said Craig Clinch, news editor of British-based Back Street Heroes magazine which is aimed at “individualistic, free-thinking bikers”.
Engine noise apart, the motorcycle lobby is a group that is being listened to.
“The FEM is probably on the extreme side as far as lobby groups go, but as an organisation they do represent an important section of the motorcycle community,” said a spokesman for one manufacturer.
Bernd Thomas, general secretary of the Association of European Motorcyle Manufacturers (ACEM) agrees. “On many issues we agree with the FEM, but we feel they represent only one section of the motorcycle community,” he said. “We have to bear in mind a much broader spectrum of consumers.
Although Thomas could not provide the value of the market, he said about 1.8 million motorcycles were sold in Europe in 1995 — an increase of about 15 percent over the previous year.
“Most of the increases were in bikes below 50cc, but the bigger bikes cannot be ignored,” said Thomas. “They tend to be the real fanatics.”
(c) Reuters Limited 1996


Take That fans disappointed by glimpse of band.

By David Fox
LEUVEN, Belgium, April 2 (Reuter) – Hundreds of screaming Belgian teenagers were given scant reward for a day-long vigil in cold spring weather — the merest glimpse of British pop group Take That.
The band, on a farewell tour before splitting up later this year, sped past the waiting crowd and into a nightclub in this small university town to perform two songs for an exclusive audience.
Organisers had promised tickets to the first 400 fans, but more than three times that number queued for over 12 hours to see their heroes.
Police frogmen were on alert in a canal next to the hall where the band was to play in case the crowd swelled out of control. First aid teams were also on standby, dishing up glasses of water and throat lozenges to the shrieking girls.
The band, made up of Gary Barlow, Jason Orange, Mark Owen and Howard Donald have attracted hundreds of thousands of mainly teenage girl fans since they formed.
Robbie Williams’ departure from the band last year triggered a suicide watch and depression help-lines for distraught teens.
The band announced earlier this year they would split and tonight’s concert is the penultimate before a finale in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on Thursday.
“I come from Ghent and want to marry Mark,” said 14-year-old Anna who, not withstanding the age difference, would also have difficulty communicating with her would-be-fiance as the only English she speaks consists of the band’s lyrics.
But that is the kind of idolatory carefully nurtured by an industry that measures a band’s worth in millions of dollars in records and merchandising spinoffs.

Take That have seven number one hits and sold four million singles and three million albums in Britain alone.
Giselle, 15, from Ghent, said she had bought every one of the band’s records as well as posters and T-shirts — around 10,000 Belgian francs spent on what she admits will be a passing fad.
“I saw them, I saw them,” shrieked one young girl as a station wagon drove slowly past.
Unfortunately the vehicle appeared to contain four burly moustachioed workers from the Stella Artois brewery that dominates this town.
When the real Take That finally drove past, the teenagers shrieked, wept and waved.
Then they slowly dispersed, their dreams trampled among the empty crisp packets left behind.
(c) Reuters Limited 1996


Basque group back online after “bombing” campaign.

By David Fox
BRUSSELS, April 10 (Reuter) – A Basque political organisation is back online after claiming to have been bombed off the internet by the Spanish government.
Euskadi Koordination, the Basque Solidarity Committee, launched its new web page in Brussels on Wednesday, two months after a Swiss internet service provider closed down its site following a blitz of anti-Basque E-mail.
The campaign was orchestrated by the Spanish government, said Manuel Elgorriaga Kunze of the Zurich-based group.
The Basque activists launched the Web site — an electronic directory of interactive news, information and opinion — with Swiss company Internet Access Swiss AG in October last year.
Spanish newspapers first reported the existence of the site in February and began suggesting that organisations such as the outlawed ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) could be using the internet to plan bombing campaigns.
ETA has been fighting for the past 25 years for an independent Basque homeland.
“From that point our web site was bombed by thousands of threatening messages,” said Kunze. “In two days days we were getting up to 80 E-mails a minute.”
Kunze said the Swiss access provider’s system crashed and they had no alternative but to get rid of the Euskada pages.
Belgian computer expert Daniel Verhoeven, whose Knooppunt gateway is giving Euskada its new home, said he had analysed the data that caused the Swiss system to crash.
It was clear much of the data originated from a single Spanish source and was computer generated, he said.
Knooppunt, part of a growing group of self-styled “alternet” internet providers that give space to green, radical or political web sites, says it has included safeguards that will make it more difficult for “internet terrorists” to disrupt.
“But really the issue is one of internet postmasters (access providers) having the ethics and honesty not to allow their equipment to be used for such means,” said Verhoeven.
The issue highlights the growing concern felt by many governments that the internet is extending a powerful grip on more computer literate populations.
In Singapore the government recently said it wanted to licence all access providers. Government opponents said this was to inhibit freedom of speech.
China, whose attempt to surpress information during the Tiananmen Square revolt of June 1989 was thwarted in some way by a Hongkong-based fax campaign to the mainland, is also reported to be concerned about the growing access of its citizens to the internet.
While governments can clamp down on access providers operating within its territory, there is little they can do short of cutting all telephone links to stop computer literate people from accessing foreign web sites.
(c) Reuters Limited 1996



By David Fox
BRUSSELS, April 14 (Reuter) – The start of the 1996 Belgian horse-racing season was almost surreal — two weeks late, five ageing mounts trudged around a circuit for no prize money and no spectators.
In the mid-eighties Belgian races attracted thousands of punters who gambled nearly six billion Belgian francs ($194.3 million) a year.
“Belgian racing is in a terrible, terrible state,” said Alain Dhooghe, marketing manager of the Belgian arm of bookmakers Ladbrokes. “Sometimes I wonder whether if it stopped completely anyone would notice.”
Belgian horse-racing’s rags to riches and back to rags tale reads like a script by thriller writer Dick Francis.
It involves crooked owners, trainers and jockeys; betting scandals and “nobbled” horses; and talk of links to the murder of a leading politician. In true Belgian fashion, it also contains elements of cultural and language divisions.
The next few months will prove crucial for the industry as the government is currently considering a package that enthusiasts say could save it.
Belgian racing is a byzantine structure. The industry is controlled by 11 racing associations which individually organise trotting and gallop meetings at seven racetracks.
The associations — which frequently argue among themselves — are represented by the Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU), which controls prize money and gambling through tote offices at racetracks.
The PMU, with a 40 percent stake in bookmakers Tierce Franco Belge, is often at odds with Ladbrokes, the only moderately successful element of the whole racing and gambling scene as it does not have to plough any of its takings back into the sport.
PMU itself knows change is needed. “It is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination,” said Livenus Impens, PMU managing director. “It is obvious that we need to do a lot to save the sport.”
Attempts have been made in the past. Although the majority of racing bets in Belgium are laid by French speakers from Brussels and Wallonia, all seven racetracks are in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region.
In 1990 the government of Wallonia invited bids to build a track. It turned out to be a two-horse race between rivals Ladbrokes and PMU, with the latter winning by a nose.
One of the ministers responsible for awarding the track licence, Walloon politician Andre Cools, was murdered in a case that is still unsolved.
Five years on there is still no track, the whole affair bogged down in bureaucracy, PMU infighting and a lack of funds.
Both the PMU and Ladbrokes agree there is a great market for racing in Belgium — if it is properly organised.
Betting on foreign races at Belgian bookmakers totalled more than 10 billion francs ($323.8 million) — down from the 12 billion ($388.6 million) peak of the mid-eighties — but still enough to suggest a market exists.
Both PMU and Ladbrokes are also doing well out of non-horse betting on sports such as football, greyhound and cycling events, which — together with domestic and foreign horserace gambling — gleaned more than 50 billion francs ($1.62 billion) from Belgian pockets in 1994, the last year for which figures are available.
That year, however, Belgium’s bookmakers reported a combined loss of 49 million francs ($1.59 million). Only Ladbrokes — with a profit of 37 million ($1.20 million) — ended in the black with Tierce Franco Belge losing 79 million ($2.56 million), Dumoulin seven million ($226,700) and Vincennes breaking even.
The government is now studying a PMU proposal for the industry to be semi-nationalised under the wings of the Ministries of Agriculture and Finance, which would monitor the racing and gambling sides respectively.
The day-to-day racing operations would be run by a “white knight” — wealthy Flanders businessman Philippe Vandervyvere, who is known to be very keen on the project.
Meanwhile, the season goes on. Another closed door meeting is planned next week — organisers must hold meetings or lose their licence and it is cheaper for them to hold one without a crowd than with one.
“A ridiculous state of affairs,” said Dhooge, “but you never know…Belgian racing can still recover.”
(c) Reuters Limited 1996


About FoxFromZim

I am a journalist from Zimbabwe, currently based in Singapore. I report chiefly on international affairs, specialising in politics, war and natural disasters when not playing golf badly.
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