Kohl plan to send troops to Somalia

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CHANCELLOR Helmut Kohl announced yesterday his intention to dispatch armed German troops to Somalia to reinforce the United Nations' humanitarian operations there.

Up to 1,500 troops in all, mostly engineers and medical staff, but reinforced by light infantry for 'self-defence', should be offered to the UN, the Chancellor said. This would be the first time since the Second World War that German troops are deployed outside the Nato area. It represents the most significant attempt so far by the increasingly impatient conservatives in the government to break out of the restrictive interpretation of Germany's constitution.

'This is hugely important for Germany's image in the world,' said Mr Kohl, alluding to the ridicule directed towards his country when it chose not to participate in the US-led international force that ousted Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991. 'Germany cannot stand on the sidelines,' he added.

The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Bjorn Engholm, accused Mr Kohl of 'sheer provocation'. If the government went ahead, he said, the SPD would challenge the move in the constitutional court.

Venting his frustration at the months of political wrangling that has resulted in the German government feeling embarrassed by its international security inaction compared with its partners, the Chancellor said: 'The issue is whether Germany is able to fulfil its duties in the international community, in the UN, in accordance with its size and importance.' Mr Kohl added that 'we need decisions now, not further endless legal arguments'.

Mr Kohl said that the German troops in Somalia would be on a humanitarian, not military, mission. They would not be sent until the appropriate regions had been properly secured. 'This could be in two months, or six weeks,' said the head of the Chancellery, Friedrich Bohl. But the troops would, in a significantly new move in German terms, have the right of self-defence, Mr Bohl made clear.

The opposition SPD have offered their necessary parliamentary support for a constitutional amendment that would enable German troops to take part in UN peace-keeping missions. But the government has rejected this as too restrictive. This latest Somalia initiative marks a renewed offensive by the government, both to test the political limits of the constitution, and to get the German public used to the country's changing international role.