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Top German commander resigns over deadly air strike

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-11-26

The German army chief of staff, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, has resigned after accusations the military withheld information about a September 4 air strike that killed scores of civilians in northern Afghanistan.

A top German general as well as a senior defence ministry official resigned on Thursday over the handling of a controversial Sept. 4 air strike in Afghanistan, which killed dozens of civilians.

The resignations came as the German parliament debates the country’s military deployment in Afghanistan. Later on Thursday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen is set to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin amid growing pressure on NATO members to dispatch more troops to battle the Taliban in the insurgent-hit nation.

German chief-of-staff General Wolfgang Schneiderhan quit after a newspaper revealed the existence of a secret military report that pointed to civilian casualties in the Sept. 4 airstrike in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.

According to the Bild, a popular German daily, the report pointed to civilian casualties at the time the government and military was denying them.

Air strikes targeted NATO fuel tankers seized by the Taliban

The Kunduz airstrike was ordered by a German commander against two NATO tanker trucks carrying fuel that had been seized by the Taliban. Local Afghans were pilfering fuel from the tankers at the time of the attack and several civilians were killed in the strike.

According to the independent Afghanistan Rights Monitor group, 70 civilians were killed in the attack. The Afghan government has put the civilian death toll at 30.

Shortly after the air strike, local and international media began reporting incidents of civilian casualties, with Afghan TV stations showing footage of children wounded in the attack.

According to the Bild, the secret military report proved that the defence ministry had clear indications that there were civilian casualties, but that ministry officials stated for several days that this was not the case.

Addressing parliament on Thursday, German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg acknowledged the existence of the secret report. He said Gen. Schneiderhan had failed to provide proper information about the incident and had "released himself from his duties at his own request". He added that German Secretary of State for Defence Peter Wichert had also resigned.

Widespread German opposition to Afghan mission

Germany has a 4,500-strong troop mission in Afghanistan, but there is widespread domestic opposition to Germany’s military involvement in NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The Sept. 4 strike created a huge controversy in a nation where opposition to militarism has been a cornerstone of German post-war identity more than 60 years after the defeat of the Nazis.

According to Thomas Ruttig, a German expert on Afghanistan who has served as a senior UN diplomat and is currently co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, the German public response to the Kunduz stike is also “linked to how the German government has dealt with its military mission in Afghanistan.”

“The German government, like many Western governments, has claimed that this is not a war, it’s a stabilization exercise and development mission,” said Ruttig in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Kabul. “I think in this case there was not enough transparency on how the situation looked like in Afghanistan.”

Date created : 2009-11-26

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