German troops pictured posing with Afghan skull

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The German army's reputation as exemplary and popular peacekeepers suffered a devastating blow yesterday after its soldiers in Afghanistan were shown touting a human skull and sexually exposing themselves in a series of photographs published by a newspaper.

The images, displayed on the front page of Germany's Bild newspaper, showed troops and officers deployed near Kabul posing with a human skull attached to the bonnet of an army vehicle, apparently as a mascot.

Another picture showed a soldier in camouflage fatigues holding the skull next to his erect penis. "German soldiers desecrate a dead person," ran the newspaper headline. Bild said that the photographs were taken in 2003 and it was not clear where the soldiers had found the skull.

The photographs provoked outrage in Germany yesterday. Franz Josef Jung, the Defence Minister, said the scenes aroused "repugnance and horror".

Announcing an immediate investigation into the affair, he added: "Anyone who behaves in this way has no place in the army."

Chancellor Angela Merkel described the photographs as " shocking and disgusting" and said such behaviour by German soldiers was "inexcusable."

General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the army's chief of staff, later confirmed that two of the suspect soldiers were being questioned. One was said to have left the army. "The matter has been handed over to state prosecutors," he said.

The photographs are certain to cause immense damage to the German army's reputation. Politicians and military leaders have been painfully conscious that the army's peacekeeping role in Afghanistan has given the armed forces an opportunity to demonstrate that today's German army had broken with its Nazi past.

Until yesterday the 2,800 German army troops deployed in Afghanistan as part of Nato's International Security Assistance Force enjoyed a reputation as exemplary peacekeepers who were popular with the local population.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, conceded that the soldiers' behaviour had "damaged the German army and the image of Germany as a whole." He added: "They are an insult to the many thousands of soldiers who are performing exemplary duties for Germany abroad."

Norbert van Heyst, a former German military commander in Afghanistan, warned that the photographs could provoke attacks on German troops stationed in the country.

The scandal could hardly have come at a worse moment for Ms Merkel's government, which yesterday voted to extend Germany's Afghanistan mission until October next year because of the worsening security situation. However, unlike their British, US and Canadian counterparts, the German forces are not being deployed to fight the Taliban in the south of the country, but are based in the relative calm of the capital, Kabul.

The German army is also facing allegations that members of its crack KSK special forces unit deployed in Afghanistan assaulted a German resident of Turkish origin called Murat Kurnaz, who was being held as a terrorist suspect by US forces in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The German Defence Ministry has admitted that KSK soldiers visited Mr Kurnaz, but deny any maltreatment. Mr Kurnaz, who was subsequently held at Guantanamo Bay, was declared innocent and released last month after Germany intervened.