Berlin Wall's contested removal halted, for now

A property developer in Germany at the centre of running protests over part of the once-detested Berlin Wall being knocked down said on Monday that the dismantling had been temporarily halted.

While dozens of protestors again gathered at the Wall's longest surviving stretch, Maik Uwe Hinkel, the head of the company Living Bauhaus, said in a German newspaper that he was open to compromise.

He told the Berliner Zeitung that until a meeting with local officials and other parties set for March 18, any further removal of the Wall was suspended. "We're ready to discuss," he told the newspaper.

"The crane has been taken away. We won't move any more wall segments for the time being. Work on our building site is carrying on, however," Hinkel told another newspaper, Berlin's BZ daily.

Opponents have rallied along the 1.3-kilometre (nearly one mile) stretch of Wall, known as the East Side Gallery, since Friday when a first panel was taken away. After around 6,000 turned out Sunday, they numbered much fewer early Monday, at around 100.

Since 1990, the outdoor gallery has been covered in brightly coloured graffiti murals, including the famous "Fraternal Kiss" depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his East German counterpart Erich Honecker.

The 3.6-metre high (11 feet) stretch is a tourist magnet and a must-see for history buffs retracing the dark chapter of Berlin's 28-year-long division who are otherwise hard pressed to find remnants of the Wall to photograph.

Plans to provide access to a 63-metre high residential development along the banks of the Spree river as well as access to a planned bridge require a 22-metre segment of the Wall to be dismantled.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, in his first comments on the issue, said Monday he believed removal of a part of the East Side Gallery seemed "not necessary" and called for the finding of "alternatives to the development of land situated on the Spree".

He said in a written statement that he supported the preservation of the section of Wall and would mediate in the dispute.

Robert Muschinski, a member of an initiative against developing the riverside area who was at Monday's protest, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now. Between now and the meeting, "nothing will happen" to the Wall, he told AFP.

Hinkel has said that the removal of part of the East Side Gallery was needed for safety reasons but had nothing to do with his firm's building plans and stemmed from directives from the local authority.

"I don't necessarily need this opening" of the Wall, he told Monday's Bild daily and also complained in the Berliner Zeitung that it was an "absurdity" and that his company had been made the "scapegoat".

Thrown up in 1961, the Wall stretched 155 kilometres (96 miles) and divided Berlin until 1989, but today only around three kilometres of it still stand.

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