BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized Thursday to the relatives of 10 people, mostly immigrants, believed to have been killed by a neo-Nazi group that eluded German authorities' detection for more than a decade.
The National Socialist Underground group — its name a clear reference to the Nazis' full name, the National Socialists — is suspected of killing eight people of Turkish origin and a Greek man between 2000 and 2006, as well as a policewoman in 2007.
The string of killings of small businessmen, including a florist, a tailor and fast-food stall owners — long known as the "kebab murders" — went unsolved for years, with authorities suspecting organized crime rather than politically motivated violence.
"The murders ... are a disgrace for our country," Merkel said during a memorial event at a Berlin concert house, attended by most of Germany's top officials and relatives of the victims. She pledged to do everything possible to clear up what happened.
Merkel acknowledged that, for a long time, few people imagined far-right terrorists could be behind the killings — "that led instead to a search for clues in the mafia and drug scene, or even among the families of the victims."
"For years, some relatives themselves unfairly faced suspicion — that is particularly oppressive," Merkel said. "I ask for forgiveness for that."
The neo-Nazi group's activities only came to light last November when two suspected founders, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, were found dead following an apparent murder-suicide as police closed in on them after a bank robbery, and a third alleged core member, Beate Zschaepe, turned herself in.
Police found the murdered policewoman's service weapon in a burning mobile home where the two bodies were found, then discovered a pistol used in the businessmen's killings at a burned-out apartment used by the group.
Investigators found copies of a propaganda video at the apartment, featuring pictures of the victims and a cartoon image of the Pink Panther standing next to a placard proclaiming "Germany Tour, 9th Turk Shot."
Merkel said she regularly has to view videos made by hostage-takers and the like, but "I have never yet in my work seen anything more inhuman."
Concern over far-right violence has flared periodically in Germany over the past two decades, but the country hasn't previously seen anything like the campaign of murder attributed to the National Socialist Underground.
"Reports about unscrupulous far-right perpetrators sometimes shake us, and they dominate the headlines for a few days," Merkel said. "But often enough we perceive such incidents as a side issue — we forget quickly, much too quickly."
Thursday's event, which was followed by a minute of silence across Germany, was initiated by former President Christian Wulff. Merkel stepped in after he resigned last week in a corruption scandal.
Semiya Simsek — the daughter of the first victim, florist Enver Simsek, who was shot in Nuremberg in 2000 — sharply criticized how authorities initially handled the killings, and said her mother had been suspected at one point.
"For 11 years, we couldn't even be victims with a clean conscience," she said.
"There was always this load on our lives that perhaps someone from our family could be responsible for the death of my father," she added. "And there was the other suspicion too: my father a criminal, a drug dealer?"