Germany summons allies for talks on troops, bases Soldiers' privileges, exercises are irritants

September 07, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Germany exercised its new sovereignty yesterday by hauling the United States and five other allies to the negotiating table in an effort to end their troops' special privileges and rights.

The six countries have 400,000 soldiers on what was West German territory and are to continue basing troops there as part of the West's military alliances. But Germany wants to end the special legal and training rights that date to the troops' original role as occupiers after World War II.

And because the talks reportedly are being held against the will of the United States and Britain, they also signal a willingness by Germany to use its new sovereignty.

While Canada, Belgium, France and the Netherlands were willing to discuss their troops' status, Britain and the United States had to be persuaded, an official in the German Foreign Ministry said. Both countries are unwilling to see restrictions placed on their forces' freedom to train in Germany, the official said. "They didn't see it as necessary and didn't understand its internal importance in Germany."

The meeting ended without result, and talks are to continue over the next months. Officials refused to comment, and the German Foreign Ministry released a report saying only that the atmosphere was "positive" and that all sides agreed that the troops' presence in Germany should "reflect the current situation."

In Washington, the State Department responded to inquiries about the talks by noting merely that they had occurred and that more sessions would be held in the near future. It noted that Germany had the right to request a review of the agreement.

The talks are important to Germany because the exercises are intensely unpopular. Scores of small German towns are affected by low-level jet training runs and tank exercises that have ruined hundreds of acres of popular recreational areas.

Foreign Ministry officials say they do not want the troops to pull out, as Soviet troops are doing in eastern Germany. But they do want to end privileges such as extraterritoriality -- the troops' exemption from their host country's justice system. This means a U.S. soldier who commits a crime in Germany can be tried under U.S. rather than German law.

Because the troops generally are well-behaved and not resented by the local population, this is not considered a sticking point.

More controversial is Germany's request for the allies to hand back some exercise areas and reduce unpopular activities at other bases.

The most celebrated case is on Lueneburger Heide, a tract of rolling moorland in north-central Germany. The British army has exclusive use of 85,000 acres of the heath, which it uses for tank maneuvers.

"No one hates the British or Americans. It's just that enough is enough. Let them go home to play war," said Ingobert Marx, head of the local opposition to the British base, which has gathered 13,500 signatures calling on the British to leave.

British army spokesman Harry Henatsch said that Germany would have to compensate Britain with a suitable tract of land elsewhere.

In other parts of Germany, such as in the Eifel forest near the Belgian border, similar citizens' movements have sprung up against the noise and pollution caused by allied forces.

"On the one hand, we know that many of our friends' livelihoods depend on [working in] the American bases," said Hans Helmer, head of the Quiet citizens' initiative against low-level flights. "On the other hand, it makes life here miserable. For 46 years we've had to put up with jets rattling our windows and children not sleeping properly. It can't continue on like this."

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