BERLIN (Reuters) - The German parliament, in a rare sign of cross-party unity, condemned on Tuesday a wave of neo-Nazi killings and the failure of police agencies to stop the murder spree in which nine immigrant shopkeepers were shot dead at close range.
All members of parliament from Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition to the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Left party rose in unison to voice contrition for Germany's failure to protect the immigrants from right-wing extremists.
"We're ashamed that the federal and state security agencies were not able to either stop or detect the crimes that were planned and carried out over a period of several years," said Norbert Lammert, president of the parliament, as the more than 600 deputies bowed their heads.
Germans, long burdened by their Nazi past, have been shocked by news three neo-Nazis had killed immigrant shopkeepers with impunity as police failed to connect the murders to the right-wing extremists. Two of the neo-Nazis committed suicide after a botched bank robbery two weeks ago.
Lammert, a leader in Merkel's conservative party, asked for forgiveness from the victims' families for "suspicions" that had been levelled in the past at the victims -- suggestions such as that they had perhaps been involved in illegal activities.
"We're all aware of our responsibilities and we're determined to resolve this," he added, before deputies unanimously adopted a resolution from all six parties expressing commiseration and demanding structural changes at agencies.
"We've got to make sure that everyone who lives here in Germany -- regardless of their origins, religious beliefs or orientation -- can have the same constitutionally guaranteed protections," Lammert said.
There has been criticism that the government -- and police agencies -- have long been "blind to the right" and overlooked signals that right-wing extremists might have been responsible for the murder spree.
Critics have said the police would probably have been more energetic if 10 Germans had been executed.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told deputies there are now 300 investigators on the case that has horrified the country that had for years assumed the threat from the far right had been limited to a handful of poorly organised extremists.
"This was an attack on our society, on our freedom and on our democracy," Friedrich said. "With horror and sorrow we're being confronted each day with new information about the serial killings of a band of terrorists."
The three neo-Nazis went underground after a bungled attempt to arrest them in 1998. Police suspect they may have had about a dozen helpers and many more sympathisers. Authorities admit they do not know how many neo-Nazis have gone underground.
Merkel has already called the existence of the National Socialist Underground cell a disgrace. Its members are suspected of killing nine immigrants, eight Turks and a Greek, and a police woman, between 2000 and 2007.
Germany's Nazi past makes right-wing militancy a particularly sensitive subject, yet experts have long warned of extremism among disenchanted young people in eastern regions of the country where unemployment is high and job prospects poor.
The existence of the cell only came to light by chance, raising fears the security services had underplayed the threat from the extreme right and may have been distracted by the use of unreliable informants.
Police are reopening all unsolved cases with a possible racist motive since 1998.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)