Germany's Merkel apologises for Afghan air strike

BERLIN Tue Dec 1, 2009 5:45pm GMT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pauses as she addresses a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin, December 1, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pauses as she addresses a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin, December 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret on Tuesday for an air strike in Afghanistan which killed civilians three months ago, as calls intensified for a probe into what members of her government knew about the attack.

Both Merkel's conservatives and her new coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), have signalled their support for a parliamentary investigation into the German-ordered strike, which has already cost a cabinet minister his job.

Revelations that the government knew more about civilian deaths than it initially acknowledged have emboldened opposition parties weeks into Merkel's second term, and become a major headache for her.

Merkel, speaking after talks with visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, said questions remained about the September 4 strike, which was called in by German forces and carried out by a U.S. warplane.

The Afghan government has said the attack on two hijacked fuel trucks killed 69 Taliban insurgents and 30 civilians.

"Firstly, everything needs to be completely cleared up. Secondly, we need to make very clear, and I have done this, that we regret this ... and that Germany takes responsibility," she said, in her most apologetic comments to date.

Franz Josef Jung, the defence minister at the time, resigned from the cabinet on Friday after admitting he had been aware of a report that pointed to civilian casualties.

Jung, who was appointed labour minister in October, had repeatedly denied there were civilian casualties in the weeks after the Kunduz strike, despite the evidence in the report.

Merkel's new FDP allies tried to throw the affair back at the opposition on Tuesday, saying a parliamentary probe should examine what Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel's foreign minister at the time, knew about the strike.

Steinmeier, now leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) in parliament, was Merkel's deputy in the previous coalition.

Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, said that by going after Steinmeier, the FDP ran the risk of ensnaring Merkel.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Noah Barkin; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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