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Merkel ally resigns over Afghan deaths
BERLIN (Reuters) - A senior ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel quit the cabinet on Friday after being accused of covering up details of an air strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan when he was defence minister.
The resignation of Franz Josef Jung, who was pilloried for failing to come clean about the September 4 air strike called in by German forces, was an embarrassing setback for Merkel just one month into her second term in power.
Jung said he would quit as labour minister a day after it was announced the head of Germany's armed forces and a former deputy defence minister were stepping down over the air strike the Afghan government say killed 69 Taliban and 30 civilians.
"This is a bad start for Merkel," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist from Berlin's Free University. "And it's going to be a bumpy ride for a bit yet."
The demise of Jung caps a testing month for Merkel, who has had to contend with carmaker General Motors' shock decision to reject Berlin's plans for Opel, as well as disputes within her new coalition over German-Polish relations and planned tax cuts.
Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, called in a U.S. warplane to carry out the raid in Kunduz. Kabul's casualty tally made it the deadliest operation involving German troops since World War Two.
Jung, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), had repeatedly denied civilians were killed in the attack, which has strengthened opposition to Germany's presence in Afghanistan.
On Thursday Jung admitted to parliament he had known for weeks of the existence of a military report that pointed to civilian deaths. But he said he had had no "concrete knowledge" of its contents because it had been passed to NATO.
His testimony was watched by a frowning Merkel, who is working to extend a mandate for Germany's 4,250 troops in Afghanistan, and had refused to offer him unconditional backing.
Newspapers from across the political spectrum condemned the 60-year-old Jung after his performance in the Bundestag lower house. One called the affair the first major crisis of Merkel's new centre-right administration.
PUBLIC SUPPORT WORRY
Jung announced he was stepping down in a terse statement delivered at a hastily called news conference at his ministry.
"I hereby assume the political responsibility for the internal communication policy of the defence ministry," he said.
Merkel said Jung would be replaced by Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 51. The latter's job would be taken by Kristina Koehler, a 32-year-old member of the Bundestag from Hesse, Jung's home state, the chancellor told reporters.
Jung's removal may not spare Merkel further embarrassment on the civilian deaths, as opposition parties have said they will order a parliamentary investigation into the air strike.
"Because of all this Merkel is going to have a lot more trouble getting public support for the Afghanistan mission," said Neugebauer.
The German parliament is expected to renew a mandate next week which allows Merkel's government to deploy up to 4,500 in the country, but officials have indicated this number could be raised early next year.
The mission has become increasingly unpopular in Germany and other NATO states as violence has reached its deadliest levels since the Taliban was forced from power in 2001.
If Germany can draw a line under the air strike, it could profit new defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who has won praise for his swift decision to shake-up the army's leadership once the report of the civilian deaths reached him.
"Guttenberg now has an opportunity to make a name for himself," said Neugebauer.
For more news on the Afghan conflict, click on [ID:nAFPAK]
(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Charles Dick)
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