Defence Minister urged to quit over air strike 'lies'

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Chancellor Angela Merkel's Defence Minister was under mounting pressure to resign yesterday over accusations that he lied over a German-ordered air strike in Afghanistan which killed dozens of civilians.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, one of the country's most popular politicians, was appointed Defence Minister in October and given a mandate to be more honest about Germany's military role in Afghanistan – a deeply unpopular subject largely avoided by politicians.

The leaders of Germany's opposition Social Democrat and Green parties, Sigmar Gabriel and Jürgen Trittin, said Mr zu Guttenberg should step down if the allegations are proved true. "He has knowingly told untruths," Mr Trittin said. "We call this lying."

A month after taking office, the conservative minister described the Kundus strike, which killed as many as 142 people in September, as "militarily appropriate". However, in a dramatic turnaround three weeks later he sacked General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the German army's commanding officer, and a top defence ministry official for allegedly failing to provide full information about the strike and the civilian deaths it caused.

The latest twist came at the weekend when General Schneiderhan went on television and insisted that the minister had in fact been privy to all the information available about the attack when he described it as "militarily appropriate".

More confusion was added to the affair yesterday after unconfirmed reports suggested that KSK forces in Afghanistan – the German equivalent of the SAS – had been behind the air strike and that the lack of information about the attack was due to the secrecy surrounding the special forces unit. "If it emerges that the KSK ordered the strike – then the unit will not survive in its present form," warned the Social Democrat defence spokesman.

The Kundus affair has become a political hot potato. A parliamentary inquiry into the air strike was opened this month. Meanwhile, public opposition to the country's military presence in Afghanistan is rising.

Yesterday, Mr zu Guttenberg, was adamant he would remain Defence Minister. "I will definitely stay, even when it gets tough," he insisted.