By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany launched a national register of neo-Nazis on Wednesday as it takes steps to tackle failings that allowed known extremists to wage a seven-year racist killing spree.
The discovery of a small neo-Nazi cell in the former East German town of Zwickau last year and evidence linking it to the killings caused profound shame in Germany and highlighted its shortcomings in fighting right-wing extremism.
The existence of the cell, calling itself the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU), only came to light by chance after two members committed suicide following a botched bank robbery, and a female accomplice torched an apartment used by the gang.
Germany plans an overhaul its intelligence services in the wake of the NSU murders, but some experts say what is needed most is a fundamental change in approach in a country whose Nazi past makes right-wing militancy a sensitive subject.
"The new database will be of use, but it doesn't help with the fundamental problem which is that this data must be properly scrutinized, and immediately investigated. The fact this didn't happen is what led to the catastrophic failures," said Hajo Funke, an expert on Germany's far-right.
Underestimating the far-right threat is a long running trend, he said.
"For too long intelligence agencies saw the enemy elsewhere. During Cold War times they monitored the leftists, anarchists and punks. The far right simply wasn't on their radar. In some quarters there may have also been some sympathy for the far-right within their ranks."
Since late last year a depressing picture has emerged of missed chances and missed leads as the group engaged in a killing spree from 2000-2007, murdering eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman.
Authorities hope the new register will ensure intelligence on far-right extremists is properly shared between the police forces and domestic intelligence services across German states.
The register is modeled on a database of radical Islamists that has been in operation for several years.
"The aim of this is to develop an effective fight against far-right extremism in this country ... and in this way to ensure that what has happened can never happen again," Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said at the launch of the register in eastern Berlin.
However obstacles faced by an inquiry into the killings show that progress may be difficult. The probe has been undermined by agencies withholding or even destroying information.
In July the head of Germany's domestic intelligence service resigned after admitting that an official within his agency had shredded files on the NSU. This week Berlin's Interior Senator expressed regret for not sharing with the inquiry that an informant of the Berlin Office of Criminal Investigation had warned years earlier that he had information about the NSU.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has apologized to the families of the murder victims for the catalogue of neglect and errors, said on Monday the inquiry was not proceeding as it should.
Experts say far-right extremism is a particular threat among disenchanted young people in Germany's eastern regions where unemployment is high.
Police have reopened all unsolved cases with a possible racist motive since 1998 amid fears that security services underplayed the far-right threat, or used unreliable informants.
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Rosalind Russell)