Merkel defends Afghan mission after deadly air strike
The speech came as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said that there had been civilian victims in Friday's air strike in northern Kunduz province, but gave no numbers.Berlin -- Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday she deeply regrets any civilian deaths in an air strike in Afghanistan last week, as she defended the unpopular mission ahead of elections on September 27.
"Every innocent person killed in Afghanistan is one too many," Merkel said in a speech to parliament. "Any innocent person killed or hurt, including through German actions, I deeply regret.
"It is important to me as German chancellor to express this today, and to the Afghan people, and I think I say this in all your names," Merkel told deputies, promising a "open" enquiry. "I will ensure that we will not put a gloss on anything."
The speech came as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that there had been civilian victims in Friday's air strike in northern Kunduz province, but gave no numbers.
The incident has put Merkel under pressure at home and abroad, with opposition parties pressing her for a full explanation, less than three weeks before the country goes to the polls.
In her address, Merkel also delivered a stout defence of Germany's presence in Afghanistan which had proved deeply unpopular even before Friday's raid.
Merkel has refused to name a date for a withdrawal, but on Sunday she unveiled a joint German-British-French proposal for an international conference this year to pressure Karzai's government to take on more responsibilities so that coalition forces can come home.
"It was Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that was the breeding ground for the terror of September 11," Merkel told lawmakers on Tuesday, referring to the 2001 attacks on the United States. "The September 11 attacks were followed by dreadful attacks in Europe -- in Madrid and in London. We know too that Germany is in their sights ... The engagement in Afghanistan is our reaction to terror. That's where it came from, not the other way around."
Merkel also rejected foreign criticism of the Kunduz raid -- French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called it a "big mistake" -- saying that observers should wait for the full facts to be established.
"I will also ensure that we will not accept any premature judgements,” Merkel said. “And having experienced what I have in recent days, I say this very clearly: I will refuse to accept this from anyone, either here in Germany or from abroad."
Local Afghan officials have put the death toll at least 54, with the victims engulfed in an inferno as the bombs blew up two fuel trucks that had been kidnapped by militants.
But other sources put the death toll from the air strike, carried out by US aircraft and ordered by a German commander, far higher and there are contradictory reports about the number of civilians and Taliban fighters killed.
The German defence ministry said on Monday that it had feared that the Taliban would use the fuel trucks as mobile bombs to kill German and Afghan government troops, calling the strike "militarily necessary and correct".
Germany only began major military deployments abroad a decade ago, breaking a post-war taboo, and the air strike has moved what was already an unpopular mission up the agenda ahead of general elections in less than three weeks.
Although pollsters say Merkel's conservatives are virtually assured of victory, they hope to ditch their current partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), and link up with the smaller, liberal Free Democratic Party.
All three parties support the Afghan mission, as do the Greens. The only party in the Bundestag to call for Germany's 4,200 troops to come home now is the far-left Die Linke, which has called a demo in Berlin on Tuesday.