German warship to join UN forces

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GERMANY opened a new era yesterday with the Bonn government's decision to despatch a destroyer and three military reconnaissance aircraft to join the monitoring of UN sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. Shrugging off the risk of a domestic constitutional crisis, should the opposition Social Democrats go ahead with threats to challenge the move, Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, said that there was 'no international understanding any more for a German refusal to make any form of contribution'.

Volker Ruhe, the Defence Minister, described this first participation since the Second World War of German troops in a non-humanitarian military exercise as a 'new situation for Germany'. While at pains to stress that the operation 'fell far short of any question of military deployment in the sense of force being used', Bonn's decision to participate in the multinational operation was, he said, 'more than a gesture, more than a symbol - it is a serious step'.

The destroyer Bavaria, with 96 conscripts among its 267 crew, will join warships from six other Nato countries patrolling the Adriatic. The three reconnaissance aircraft will be based in Italy and operate under the auspices of the Western European Union. While the destroyer 'of course has the right to self-defence', Mr Ruhe was careful to head off any public concern by emphasising that this operation was 'strictly one of monitoring and information gathering'.

Yesterday's decision, seemingly innocuous by other countries' standards, marks a significant and controversial step in the debate over Germany's international security role which has raged ever since unification. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's centre-right coalition has repeatedly made clear its wish to change the constitution, broadly interpreted as not allowing the Bundeswehr to operate outside the Nato area.

According to the government, the deployment in international waters off Yugoslavia is not, technically, 'out of area'. Given that it is a strictly monitoring exercise, there is no question of force being used, said Mr Kinkel.

Within the ranks of the ruling Christian Democrats there are powerful voices, however, urging the government to go further. The Social Democrats are sharply divided over the party's ability to hold the line on its policy of limiting a constitutional change to allowing German forces to participate only in UN peacekeeping missions.

The SPD has called for an emergency meeting this morning of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committees, after which it will decide whether to go to the constitutional court.