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Merkel govt draws scorn for deal on under-fire spy chief

© AFP | German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government drew widespread criticism for a compromise deal that defused a blistering coalition row centred on the head of the domestic intelligence service

BERLIN (AFP) - 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government drew widespread criticism Wednesday for a compromise deal that defused a blistering coalition row centred on the head of the domestic intelligence service.

Merkel and the two other party chiefs decided Tuesday to relieve Hans-Georg Maassen, 55, of his spy master post after he made controversial comments questioning the extent of far-right racist violence that shook the eastern city of Chemnitz last month.

However, in a deal that papered over the coalition cracks, they also agreed not to retire Maassen but instead shift him into the more senior and better-paid, if lower-profile, post of state secretary in the interior ministry.

"Government saved, trust destroyed," commented influential news site Spiegel Online, while top-selling Bild daily charged that the Berlin power play was "the kind of politics that normal people just don't understand anymore".

Similar criticism rained down from opposition parties the Greens, Free Democrats and Die Linke, but also from within the deeply divided centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner, which had led the charge against Maassen.

Merkel defended herself late Wednesday on the sidelines of an European summit in Salzburg, describing the decision to remove Maassen from his position as "just and important".

Maassen no longer had "the confidence of a part of the coalition," she said.

The heated row centres on the xenophobic street violence that shook the ex-communist city of Chemnitz in late August, following the late-night stabbing death of a German man in which the chief suspects are an Iraqi and a Syrian.

Merkel had deplored how racist thugs then "hunted" people of foreign appearance, but Maassen later contradicted her by suggesting that video footage of the unrest was fake and questioning whether any "hunts" had indeed taken place.

Maassen's comments were cheered by far-right anti-immigration groups but sparked anger from all other parties, which only appeared to intensify after Tuesday's compromise deal.

- 'Power and egos' -

"Maassen is being promoted for his failure in office," thundered the SPD's former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in a tweet.

Gabriel also targeted hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the conservative Bavarian CSU party, who has defended Maassen and on Wednesday again praised his "competency and integrity".

"If disloyalty and incompetence in office are the new career benchmarks, then Horst Seehofer has good prospects for becoming UN secretary general," wrote Gabriel.

Seehofer was further criticised for what many read as political payback -- his decision to send into early retirement his only state secretary from the SPD, 55-year-old Gunther Adler, in order to open up the new job for Maassen.

The interior minister also said that no-one had yet been chosen to replace Maassen as head of the BfV agency which monitors extremists mainly from far-right, far-left and Islamist groups and runs Germany's counter-espionage activities.

Bild daily attacked the latest move by Merkel's grand coalition, a loveless power pact that governs with only a narrow majority after losing millions of votes to the far-right AfD party in last year's elections.

"This was never about Maassen," charged the Bild editorial. "It was about power and the gigantic egos in a floundering grand coalition that is no longer capable of anything truly grand."

© 2018 AFP