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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rau, Governor Visit War Cemetery

NOVGOROD, Central Russia -- German President Johannes Rau laid a wreath Thursday at a cemetery for Wehrmacht soldiers from World War II, joined by the Novgorod governor. It was the first time a high-ranking Russian official had accompanied a German president to such an event.

The presence of Governor Mikhail Prusak at the somber ceremony reflects the close cooperation between Russians and Germans who have been seeking to preserve war graves in the region since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

A Russian and a German officer together laid the wreath with flowers in the colors of both nation's flags at the Pankovka cemetery, on the outskirts of Novgorod, about 500 kilometers northwest of Moscow.

The Nazi army, or Wehrmacht, was in the area for about two years during the siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, but left the area when the siege was broken in 1944. In the Soviet era, the graves were left in disrepair and a portion of the cemetery was turned into a garbage dump.

But in 1992, German veterans' organizations were allowed back into the area to search for war dead, and they restored the cemetery. It originally housed 700 Germans, 1,000 Spanish fascist troops and others who fought alongside the Nazis, but the cemetery has since been expanded with another 4,000 soldiers, mostly from the Wehrmacht, whose bodies were found in the area.

Karl-Wilhelm Lange, president of the Federation for German War Graves, who was accompanying Rau on the trip, said Russians and Germans were cooperating well in the area -- telling each other when they find bodies of fallen soldiers from the other side.

German presidents have visited such war graves in Russia before, but up to now without the accompaniment of any prominent Russian official.

Rau said at a later news conference that he was moved by the ceremony and acknowledged the Russian suffering in the war, which killed an estimated 27 million citizens in the Soviet Union.

Earlier, Rau laid a similar wreath at the official Russian war memorial in the area.

The trip has also included several meetings with younger Russians, including those who have studied in Germany, and Rau expressed hopes that "rising numbers of youth exchanges will bring down the numbers of necessary peace conferences."

Before returning to Germany later Thursday, ending his four-day state visit, Rau visited local churches -- one of which was razed during the war but is being rebuilt with the help of German industry.