VIENNA, FEB. 5 -- President Kurt Waldheim, who last week branded as a forgery a telegram allegedly showing that he ordered thousands of civilians to detention camps during World War II, today backed away from that charge and said he cannot recall whether he issued the order.
Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll published by the weekly Wochenpresse here shows that a large majority of Austrians are rallying around their president despite growing allegations that he was involved in war crimes. Of those polled, 72 percent said Waldheim should not resign and only 27 percent want him to step down; 78 percent believe that he is not guilty of war crimes and only 18 percent do.
On Saturday, the West German weekly Der Spiegel released what it said was a 1942 telegram showing that Waldheim, then a lieutenant in a German Army unit in the Balkans, ordered the deportation of more than 4,000 mostly women, children and old men to two camps that served as transfer stations to a concentration camp. The magazine said the telegram "for the first time will prove . . . Waldheim's complicity in war crimes."
Waldheim said today that he "cannot remember, even with the best will, events after 46 years." But even if the telegram turned out to be authentic, he said, it would prove only that he ordered the transport of civilians, not that he committed war crimes.
On Saturday, Waldheim, through a spokesman, said the telegram was "most probably a fake." The spokesman added that the magazine had obtained the alleged document from a Yugoslav historian for "a five-digit sum in dollars."
Today, the Yugoslav government newspaper Borba said two of its reporters discovered a telegram in the Belgrade war archives that was similar to the one published by Der Spiegel and that supports the authenticity of the Spiegel document.
In the interview, Waldheim also denied an allegation that he was present at the execution of 104 Albanian resistance fighters on Oct. 23, 1944, in Yugoslavia. The director of the Yugoslav war archives in Kosovo, Hakif Bairami, has claimed that he has seen a copy of a Nazi newspaper that mentioned Waldheim's presence in a report on the execution and that is currently in the Kosovo war archives.
A flood of new documents from Yugoslavia that allegedly implicate Waldheim in war crimes will prevent an international commission of military historians from completing a report on Waldheim's wartime role before its mandate runs out on Monday, one of the panel members said today. But Chancellor Franz Vranitzky said today that the commission's mandate would be extended if the historians need more time.