- The Washington Times - Friday, April 4, 2003

Authorities have increased vigilance over 24 U.S. military cemeteries abroad in the wake of desecration of a memorial to allied dead of World War I at a military cemetery in France.

"We have on-site personnel 24 hours a day, and they are the eyes and ears of our cemeteries," said Thomas R. Sole, director of engineering, maintenance and operations for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the U.S. military cemeteries in foreign countries, including 11 in France.

"We're concerned and we have increased our vigilance," Mr. Sole said, noting that each of the U.S. cemeteries is watched over by at least one commission employee who lives at the site. "This is not going to be tolerated, and we intend to work closely with local authorities and police to be sure."

Vandals spray-painted insults at the Etaples Military Cemetery near Calais last week: "Dig up your trash, it's soiling our land." The graffiti, scrawled in French across the base of a large cenotaph, or memorial, includes a swastika, under which was written "Death to the Yankees," and the names of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Scribbled nearby was the boast: "Saddam will triumph and spill your blood."

The vandalized cemetery includes the remains of 10,744 British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers killed during World War I.

Mr. Sole said security at the sites generally is the responsibility of local police. The U.S. military cemeteries are located on land supplied by the foreign governments, and treaties give the United States sovereignty over the land forever.

Of the 541,915 American dead of World Wars I and II, 124,167 are buried in military cemeteries in Europe and the South Pacific, including 60,486 in France.

No U.S. soldiers are buried at the Etaples cemetery, located about 150 miles north of Paris. The graffiti was cleaned off the memorial this week by the French branch of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which manages the site. The cemetery is located on the site of a major British reinforcement camp and a British hospital of World War I.

French President Jacques Chirac apologized yesterday for the desecration of the cemetery, describing the antiwar graffiti as "inadmissible and shameful." In a letter delivered to Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Palace, he said: "From the French people and from me personally, I offer you my deepest regrets."

Mr. Chirac, who has been a leading opponent of the war in Iraq, told the queen, "At the moment when your soldiers are engaged in combat, the thoughts of the French are naturally turning towards them."

Public opinion polls show that 80 percent of the French population opposes the war. Only yesterday French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the United States erred morally, politically and strategically by going to war with Iraq. "Going to war was a moral error," Mr. Raffarin told a French television interviewer. "One can disarm in other ways."

A spokesman for Mr. Blair said: "We unreservedly welcome both the content and the sentiment of President Chirac's letter and the sentiments towards our troops serving in action at the moment and that his thoughts and the thoughts of the people of France are with those soldiers."

The French Embassy in Washington noted that Hamlaoui Mekachera, France's minister of state for war veterans, went to the cemetery yesterday to participate in a ceremony of remembrance and to place a wreath in the presence of British diplomatic authorities and members of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

"The French government wants in this way to pay tribute to the memory of the soldiers from across the channel who sacrificed their lives to liberate France," Mr. Mekachera said, noting that inscriptions "hostile to the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq" had been discovered on a wall at the cemetery, "arousing widespread outrage.

"France condemns these acts of vandalism in the strongest terms," he said. "The international tension only makes more heinous this violation of the memory of combatants who came to liberate our land."

Donnedieu de Vabres, vice chairman of the French National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was "deeply shocked and appalled" by the incident and that "no words are too strong to express the revulsion caused by such barbaric, monstrous and utterly despicable acts.

"This crime was committed in France, but in no way reflects the true feelings of France. Needless to say, the French government will spare no effort to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice."

The American Battle Monuments Commission is an independent agency of the executive branch of the U.S. Government and is responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of permanent U.S. military burial grounds in foreign countries.

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