A group of about 40 East Germans has taken refuge in the West German Embassy in Prague demanding assurances of safe passage to the West, West German officials said today.
The asylum seekers have occupied the embassy for the past week and refused to leave the building unless they are allowed to emigrate to West Germany, the officials said.
The Bonn government is said to be acutely worried that the latest refugee case could strain relations between the two Germanys only weeks after East German leader Erich Honecker succumbed to Soviet pressure and postponed his eagerly anticipated trip here.
Government officials said they were under strict orders not to discuss details of the case because of the fear that a wave of publicity could harm the plight of the refugees and jeopardize chances for other East Germans to emigrate legally.
A spokesman for the Bonn government said it was trying to achieve a humanitarian solution "through the usual channels." In the past, Wolfgang Vogel, a well-known East Berlin lawyer and a close confidant of Honecker, has acted as an intermediary in negotiating similar asylum cases.
East German authorities reportedly have offered to grant the refugees freedom from prosecution if they return home but have refused to give any promises of eventual emigration.
Last April, 35 East Germans successfully extracted exit visas by occupying the West German Embassy in Prague. They returned to East Germany and, as promised, were later granted permission to emigrate as part of a vast exodus that has brought close to 35,000 East Germans to the West so far this year.
But the East Berlin government subsequently insisted that in the future it would allow no further emigration by people who sought to leave the country by taking refuge in West German diplomatic missions.
Recently, it was reported that an East German family tried to gain asylum in the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin. When told to leave, the father of the family allegedly threatened to commit suicide. He and his family were quickly carried outside the building, where they were seized by East German security guards, according to the reports. The embassy has declined to comment on the affair.
The West German government is precluded from taking such abrupt action in dealing with would-be refugees by its own constitution.
East Germans have tried to force their way out of the country by seeking to take advantage of West German law which recognizes only one German nationality and thus confers equal protection and citizenship rights to East Germans.
This hallowed principle, however, has led to repeated sieges of the West German diplomatic offices in East Berlin and Prague.
After several cases involving asylum seekers who holed up inside the building for several weeks, the West German mission in East Berlin was redesigned this summer to thwart East Germans from staging future occupations of the premises.
West Germany's embassy in Prague has become a popular way station for East Germans seeking to emigrate because Czechoslovakia is the only country they can visit without a visa. Nearly half a million East Germans travel there every year.
In February, Ingrid Berg, a niece of East Germany's Prime Minister Willi Stoph, received widespread attention when she, her husband and two children took refuge in the Prague embassy and later were allowed to travel to the West.
The case proved to be an extreme embarrassment to both German governments. Ministers from Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government later appealed on West German television, which is seen by an estimated 70 percent of the East German population, for a halt to such desperate acts.