Germans ponder legality of troops abroad

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JUDGES in Germany's highest court yesterday questioned senior politicians on a clutch of disputed issues affecting the deployment of German troops abroad.

Klaus Kinkel, Foreign Minister, and Volker Ruhe, Defence Minister, were among those to appear before the constitutional court in Karlsruhe. The complex disputes had been referred to the judges earlier and they issued interim judgments. Now the judges are to give a final ruling. Yesterday even those testifying admitted they sometimes found themselves confused.

All the main parties have done balancing acts on the use of German troops, none more so than the Free Democrats, led by Mr Kinkel. Wearing his government-minister hat, he favours German participation in UN operations; wearing his party-leader hat, he has taken the government to court.

The three issues are German involvement in naval enforcement of sanctions against former Yugoslavia; the presence of German crews on Awacs planes over Yugoslavia enforcing the no-fly zone; and participation of German soldiers in the UN mission in Somalia.

Objections to the Somalia mission are theoretical: German involvement by what were described as 'aid workers in uniform' is complete. The Karlsruhe court last year issued an interim ruling, which had already given the go-ahead (after the mission had begun).

Theoretically, the politicians go to Karlsruhe because the issues have crucial constitutional implications which cannot be decided by mere politicians. Yet the judges have explicitly indicated that their decisions are partly determined by the political damage that a thumbs-down from the court might cause internationally.

The court has also indicated that parliament should make more of its own decisions - a partial victory for the Social Democrats (SPD), angered that the government did not consult parliament. In one repect, SPD fears may be justifed. Bonn has repeatedly indulged in what the SPD calls 'salami tactics' - pressing into territory previously considered taboo, thus stretching the limits of the acceptable.

Until recently the ruling Christian Democrats excluded the possibility that German troops should be on the ground in former Yugoslavia, because of the Second World War. But that seems to be changing. Rudolph Scharping, the SPD leader, said this week that even Chancellor Helmut Kohl was now 'soft as wax' on the issue. Whatever uniform Germans wear, he said, the country's history meant they would be 'targets, not mediators'.