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Series of Spectacular Escapes from East Germany and Czechoslovakia

July 27, 1987

FRANKFURT, West Germany (AP) _ Mixing courage with ingenuity, Czechs and East Germans have made death- defying escapes over their countries’ heavily guarded borders in small planes, a homemade hot-air balloon and secret automobile compartments.

This month, two pilots eluded radar in their small planes to reach the West, while eight East Germans fled to Austria from Czechoslovakia and Hungary in two separate incidents July 18.

A day later, a Soviet vessel picked up a 26-year-old East German man who had escaped from his native country by swimming along the Baltic Sea coast. The Soviets turned over the man to a West German rescue vessel and freedom, apparently without realizing he was fleeing.

Other escapers have slid down a rope shot by bow-and-arrow to accomplices in West Berlin. A 39-year-old Czech pilot eluded two fighter planes last May to reach West Germany in a hang glider he had built.

″People are surprised when they see these things, and they’re also amazed at what could drive them to take such a risk,″ says Horst Schumm, deputy director of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum.

The museum, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall’s most famous crossing, displays escape photographs and about 20 devices used to flee the two Communist nations to West Germany or West Berlin.

″When one escape is successful, then the authorities clamp down in that area to prevent a repetition,″ Schumm said in an interview.

While some use ingenious mechanical devices, others reach West Germany simply by outrunning border guards, rowing boats or swimming across icy waters. Armed East German and Czechoslovak guards are backed up by floodlights, fences and alarms to thwart escapes.

West German border police and the Bonn ministry in charge of relations between the two German nations say 83 people have escaped across the East German border to West Germany or West Berlin this year. Eight people have escaped across the Czech border to neighboring Bavaria, the figures show.

The latest escapes came over the weekend in three separate incidents. In all, five East German men escaped to the West, including a 22-year-old man who swam across the Elbe River to the state of Lower Saxony.

Authorities say that 210 people fled across the East German border to West Germany or West Berlin last year, and 25 fled across the Czech border to Bavaria.

In the first years after the Berlin Wall was built, the escape routes included a tunnel under the concrete barrier, a cable drum used to hide people and secret compartments in cars.

Some of the more unusual escapes of the last decade include:

-A September 1979 flight by two East German families in a homemade, 91-foot tall hot-air balloon. The youngest of the eight passengers was 2-year-old Andreas Wetzel.

-A bow-and-arrow shot that pulled a line across the Berlin Wall in April 1983. Two East German youths used pulleys to silently slide down the wire to the West in a dangerous journey over the heads of armed guards.

-The chloroforming of Czechoslovak airplane pilot Bozej Strutz in July 1985. The three youths on board, one of them the pilot’s son, then commandeered the plane to West Germany.

-Libor Veselsky’s daring swim across the Thaya River separating Czechoslovakia and Austria on May 17. The 31-year-old escapee said he turned off the oxygen tank of his scuba-diving gear for a while to avoid making bubbles that could have been spotted by border guards.

-The motorized hang glider flight last May 18 that took a 39-year-old Czech to freedom near the Bavarian town of Roding, just seconds ahead of Czech air force planes in hot pursuit.

-Back-to-back escapes in light planes on July 15 and 16. One was an 18- year-old student pilot who landed at Gatow airport in West Berlin. A day later a 39-year-old Czech pilot of a crop-dusting plane flew as low as 10 feet over the ground to slip through radar and landed near the northeastern Bavarian town of Roding.

″It was flying very low so that people at the air base saw it was a sports type aircraft,″ British diplomatic spokesman Donald Holder said when asked about the 18-year-old’s flight. ″I assume they realized there was no danger.″

While the successful escapes grab headlines, experts say that many more attempts are thwarted in their early stages.

″We know about the attempts that worked. We don’t know that much about the failed attempts,″ Schumm said.

Wilfried Vemmer of the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights said preparation for an escape is punishable in East Germany.

″But the successful escapes can have a copycat effect,″ he says, noting that West German television reaches major parts of East Germany and reports of a successful escape could cause others to try a similar means.

For East Germans Hans-Joachim Pofahl, 33, and Martina Ley, their dramatic escape on Aug. 29, 1986, had an odd footnote.

Pofahl drove a huge truck at breakneck speed through a Berlin Wall checkpoint, as Mrs. Ley and her 8-month-old daughter huddled on the cab’s floor to avoid a hail of bullets fired by East German border.

Though his escape was hailed as one of the boldest in recent years, Pofahl earlier this year found himself the target of a criminal investigation.

″He drove into West Berlin at excessive speed, ran a red light, was on the wrong side of the road and endangered a motorist,″ West Berlin Justice Department spokesman Volker Kaehne said in a recent interview. Officials also wanted to know whether Pofahl could be charged with theft of the truck.

The criminal inquiry ended without any charges being filed.