BERLIN - The German parliament offered a formal apology to Nazi-era slave and forced laborers Thursday as it passed a bill setting up a $5 billion compensation fund that should begin making payments to aging victims this year.
Recognizing what they said was Germany's ''unmistakable responsibility,'' lawmakers approved a resolution seeking forgiveness from victims ''for that which the Germans did to them,'' namely ''the taking away of their rights, displacement, maltreatment and exploitation.''
It called the compensation ''a long overdue humanitarian and financial gesture'' that will help make good on a ''historic and moral duty.''
The vote on the compensation fund bill was 556-42, with 22 abstentions.
Many of those voting against the measure had complained that the agreement sealed last month with the U.S. and eastern European governments and Jewish groups did not provide solid enough protection for German firms against class-action lawsuits filed by victims in U.S. courts.
The German government's envoy to the talks, Otto Lambsdorff, rejected such charges in debate before the vote and sharply criticized firms that have not yet contributed to the fund.
''No German firm, even if it was founded after the war, may exclude itself from the foundation initiative,'' Lambsdorff said. ''There is no basis to evade the collective responsibility of German trade and industry.''
The fund is being financed 50-50 by German industry and the German government. Nearly 3,000 German firms have pledged money, but it is still almost $1 billion short of its goal.
More than 1 million former laborers are expected to be eligible for payments, mostly central and eastern Europeans. The fund will also compensate people on whom medical experiments were performed and some with other Holocaust-related claims.
The final texts, including the German-U.S. agreement on legal protection for German firms, will be signed at a ceremony July 17 in Berlin, Lambsdorff said.
Payments to the Jewish Claims Conference and other organizations to distribute compensation - including ones in Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Belarus - would begin this year, he said, adding that victims would have one year to apply.
He called on the Baltic states to establish organizations to handle payments directly, so they would not have to go through Moscow, and said the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based intergovernmental agency, would handle claims from any other country.
Creation of the fund, he said, ''will help keep the past from being forgotten and to strengthen the way into a future in which such atrocities will not be repeated.''
The resolution adopted with the fund was approved by all parties except the main opposition Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which were unhappy with leaving the question of further payments open.
The conservatives released their own apology echoing the resolution, but adding that while Germany should never close the books on dealing with Nazi tyranny, it can draw a line on financial claims.
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