By Erik Kirschbaum BERLIN, June 12 (Reuters) - Germany wrapped up one aspect of its Nazi past on Tuesday by shutting down a forced labour fund that paid out more than 4.37 billion euros to 1.7 million elderly victims of the Hitler era around the world. The fund was set up in 2000 by the German government and 6,000 German companies, many of which had profited from the 10 million forced labourers used by the Nazis to keep the war machine running. Each side contributed 2.58 billion euros. "Many former forced labourers have finally received the promised humanitarian aid," Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a ceremony marking the formal end of the work for the "Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future". The fund, which started making payments after the government demand was met that German industry be protected from further legal claims, made one-off payments of between 2,500 to 7,500 euros to 1.665 million survivors in 98 countries -- in places from Monaco, Nepal, Thailand to Poland and the United States. Survivors held in camps or in ghettos during World War Two were eligible for higher amounts while those forced to toil in factories without pay received at least 2,500 euros. The largest group of recipients were non-Jews in Poland and Ukraine. The leftover funds -- about 450 million euros -- will be used for a documentation centre as well as humanitarian and medical programmes. It took two years from the point former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder proposed the fund until parliament approved it because of legal wrangling. Previously, governments and firms had resisted any such compensation. During the legal battle, an estimated 200 elderly survivors were dying each day. RECONCILIATION Merkel pointed out that Germany has paid some 64 billion euros in reparations and compensation since the end of World War Two but before the fund nothing had gone directly to the forced labourers, most of whom were held in appalling conditions. "That's why the foundation and the payments were necessary even if it will never be possible to make up for the suffering caused with any financial means," she said. While the Nazi Holocaust set out to annihilate Jews in death camps, millions of eastern Europeans toiled in abominable conditions for little or no pay. Many were killed by their guards. Others died from hard labour on starvation rations. German president Horst Koehler also paid tribute to the fund, into which leading firms such as Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Deutsche Bank and Bayer contributed. "It was an initiative that was urgently needed along the journey to peace and reconciliation," Koehler said. "At least, with these symbolic payments, the suffering of the victims has been publicly acknowledged after decades of being forgotten." Noach Flug, a former slave labourer at the ceremony, recalled the suffering and those killed during the war. "It is gratifying for me to see that the foundation has completed this grand and important achievement," Flug said.
Russia's top Balkans diplomat Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko (3rd L), U.S. envoy Frank Wisner (4th L back) and Wolfgang Ischinger from the European Union (5th L) arrive in Pristina August 11, 2007. Envoys of Russia, the United States and European Union were in Kosovo on Saturday at the start of a last-ditch diplomatic mission to decide on its ethnic Albanian majority's demand for independence from Serbia.