German soldiers shown with skull

Photos made public as changes are announced

October 26, 2006|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN -- Outrage about photographs of German troops posing with a skull in Afghanistan swept through parliament yesterday just as Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration announced a major restructuring of the military to handle increased international missions.

The five pictures appeared in Bild under the headline: "German Soldiers Desecrate a Dead Person." They show the skull in various positions, including mounted on a Jeep and held near the waist of a soldier simulating sex. The newspaper blocked out the troops' faces. Editors reported that the skull might be the remains of a villager pulled from a mass grave or a Soviet soldier killed during Afghanistan's occupation in the 1980s.

Bild is known for titillating scoops. However, the photographs, believed to have been taken about two years ago, disturbed a nation whose Nazi past has made many Germans wary of deploying their military to foreign lands. The government was concerned that the pictures could be used by Taliban and other Islamic militants to instigate a backlash against the 2,800 German troops serving in Afghanistan.

"It is clear and unambiguous that such behavior on the part of German soldiers absolutely cannot be tolerated," Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said. "These pictures arouse repugnance and horror." He told reporters that an investigation by the ministry could end in "disciplinary and even criminal measures" for members of the unit stationed near Kabul.

Military officials said the matter had been referred to prosecutors. Two soldiers in the pictures, including one who earlier had left the army, are being questioned. Desecrating the dead can carry a three-year prison sentence in Germany.

The publicity is an embarrassment for the army, which since the end of World War II has stressed to its recruits that they are accountable for their actions.

Bernhard Gertz, head of an organization representing German soldiers, called the photos "absolutely disgusting. ... We can't use such people in our army."

Germany has about 250,000 military personnel, including about 55,000 conscripts. More than 9,000 soldiers and sailors are stationed in peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Kosovo province and other regions. Germany plans to reduce its troop contingent in Afghanistan to 1,800. Members of the multinational forces are urging Germany to rotate its units out of the relatively calm north to the south, where the Taliban and insurgents are growing stronger.

The military restructuring announced yesterday by Merkel's government is a response to increasing danger from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The aim is to prepare the armed forces to react to threats at home and to expand international missions, including peacekeeping and patrolling the seas. The plan is expected to complicate the debate over whether Germany - like some of its European neighbors - should break the tradition of mandatory military service.

"German security policy has to take into account developments happening in regions that are geographically far away," states the 133-page White Paper that defines the restructuring. It is the first such overhaul since 1994 and, according to the paper, preserves Germany's cooperation with NATO and the European Union.

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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