BONN, DEC. 5 -- The German government tried today to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union by declaring that former East German leader Erich Honecker is too ill to be arrested.
But Berlin justice authorities who have issued an arrest order for the 78-year-old Communist boss insisted later in the day that they would not consider relaxing their efforts to take Honecker into custody unless the Soviets allowed German doctors to examine him.
Honecker has lived at a military hospital on a Soviet base outside Berlin since April. Monday, two days after Berlin authorities announced they were seeking to arrest him, Honecker moved into a cardiac unit at the hospital at Beelitz, suffering from high blood pressure, his lawyers said.
Honecker is wanted on manslaughter charges stemming from East German government documents that prosecutors say prove he personally ordered border guards to kill East Germans trying to escape from the Stalinist state after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Honecker faces a life sentence for his role in the deaths of nearly 200 East Germans. Under the treaty recently signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, German officials need Soviet permission to enter one of the Soviet bases that will continue to operate in eastern Germany until 1994. But the treaty also states that German law applies to the entire country.
Today, German government spokesman Hans Klein said Bonn and Moscow have held no negotiations over Honecker.
"He is lying in a military hospital and according to information available, he is not fit to be arrested because he is in an intensive care unit," Klein told a news conference.
Honecker's lawyers say he is suffering from a serious and debilitating kidney cancer, but news photographers have used telephoto lenses to show him walking regularly about the hospital grounds unaided.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said in Moscow earlier this week that Honecker is being kept on the Soviet base for "humanitarian reasons." Soviet officials said any decision about whether to turn over the man who was once Moscow's most important ally would have to be made "at the top" of the Soviet government.
Honecker's lawyers said the former leader, who was forced to quit during last year's peaceful revolution after 18 years of hard-line rule, was not likely to be handed over to the Germans anytime soon. The standoff is "less a legal problem than a problem of politics," said lawyer Friedrich Wolff.
Klein said the debate over prosecuting Honecker has not yet posed a threat to German-Soviet relations. "If it went that far, and Honecker was fit to be arrested, then one could speak of a test of strength," Klein said.
But Berlin justice department spokesman Jutta Burghart told Reuter news agency, "We are awaiting a decision by the Soviets with the intention of examining his health."