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President Francois Mitterrand paid homage Friday to 642 men, women and children massacred 50 years ago in the worst single atrocity in Nazi-occupied France.

"It is up to the next generations to build a world where Oradours will not be possible," said Mitterrand, standing near a monument to the victims of the village razed by SS troops.Normally, visitors to the area are asked to remain silent, but an exception was made for the ceremony.

"At this moment, let us feel more strongly than ever what brings us together," Mitterrand said. "As we try, in Europe, to build a new friendship between peoples who were torn apart, it's not simply to fulfill a dream, it's also because we don't want this kind of thing to happen again."

Oradour-sur-Glane was a tranquil farming village, chosen as an SS target for reasons that remain in dispute. Some historians say French members of the pro-Nazi Militia in the nearby city of Limoges helped select the town.

Troops of the armored SS Division Das Reich embarked June 8, 1944, for Normandy to help combat the Allied invasion, making two infamous stops en route.

On June 9, the troops hanged 99 Frenchmen from balconies and trees in the town of Tulle, and sent 146 more to the Dachau concentration camp.

The next day, a Saturday, the unit pulled into Oradour-sur-Glane about 2 p.m. and rounded up villagers on the pretext of conducting identity checks.

The men were taken to barns or garages and killed by machine gun. The 241 women and 209 children were herded into the church, which was set afire and then shot at with machine guns.

Five men and one woman survived.

Before leaving, the Germans burned the village to the ground. Only stone foundations remained and were left as a memorial.

Mitterrand and Premier Edouard Balladur walked silently through the ruins, accompanied by survivor Marcel Darthout, and entered the remnants of the church.

Several hundred people attended the ceremony, mostly residents of a new Oradour-sur-Glane built near the ruins after the war.