BERLIN (AP) — Germany's justice minister on Thursday pledged a quick and comprehensive investigation into how a group of neo-Nazis managed to operate under the radar of authorities for years, allegedly killing 10 people and robbing a string of banks.
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger acknowledged criticism — focused on the domestic intelligence agency — of the fact German authorities let the gang slip through their hands until earlier this month when two founding members apparently committed suicide after police closed in on them following a bank robbery.
"We are all asking how it could be that the security authorities allowed it to be possible for a known group of neo-Nazis to go underground at the end of the '90s and apparently over 13 years murder people in various German cities, carry out bombing attacks, and lethally attack police officers," she said.
The comments came in a speech in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, where she was introducing Germany's new chief federal prosecutor, Harald Range, whose predecessor retired in September.
Federal prosecutors took over the investigation of the neo-Nazi case on Friday under German anti-terrorism laws, looking at the group as a domestic terrorist organization.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said they will now conduct a "competent, goal-oriented and effective" investigation.
"We all have a responsibility to ensure that extreme-right, nationalistic and anti-Semitic groups and networks are not able to again come together," she said.
The group called itself the National Socialist Underground — a clear reference to the full name of the Nazis, a contraction of "National Socialists." It is suspected of murdering eight people of Turkish origin, one with Greek roots and a policewoman.
The investigation into the group's activities has spiraled into a nationwide search of previously unsolved crimes, including attacks in Cologne and Duesseldorf from 2000 to 2004 that are now linked to them. Those attacks injured more than 30 people, most of foreign origin.
Two people have been arrested: a suspected co-founder of the group — 36-year-old Beate Zschaepe — and an alleged supporter, identified only as 37-year-old Holger G. Two other suspected founding members, Uwe Boehnhardt, 34, and Uwe Mundlos, 38, died in an apparent suicide, but authorities believe the group might have relied on a larger network of "helpers" across the nation.
Boehnhardt and Mundlos are suspected of killing themselves in their mobile home after police closed in on them after a bank robbery in the central city of Eisenach.
In the vehicle, police found the service weapons of two police officers believed to have been attacked by the group in 2007. A 22-year-old police woman was fatally shot in the head in the attack and a fellow officer was seriously injured.
Other evidence has been recovered from the house believed to have been torched Nov. 4 by Zschaepe, the same day the bodies of Boehnhardt and Mundlos were found. She turned herself in to authorities last week, but has refused to make any statement.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency is tasked with tracking extremists, but each state has its own branch and its own police forces, which critics say resulted in a lack of coordination that helped the neo-Nazis remain undetected between 1998 and this month.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said it must now be determined whether this was simply "a small defined group of people or a widely-linked network, whether there were clandestine sympathizers in Germany or elsewhere."
The crimes have caused an outcry and soul-searching across the country, especially among immigrant groups who maintain that authorities were too quick to dismiss the murders as regular street crime, rather than looking into the possibility of extremism.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the killings "a disgrace, shameful for Germany."
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said there would be an analysis of errors made by the security services.
Already German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, whose ministry oversees the domestic intelligence agency, said the country will create a national database as a clearing-house for information on far-right extremists, the same way it currently maintains one on Islamic extremists.
He also has pointed to a need for a centralized group of specialists to coordinate contacts between the state and federal intelligence agencies.