Schroder aide quits over insult to soldier who refused him caviar

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The top foreign policy adviser of Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, was forced to resign on Tuesday for insulting a soldier who had refused to serve him caviar.

Michael Steiner was alleged to have called a German soldier an "arsehole" because he would not provide his favourite delicacy.

Newspapers reported that Mr Steiner, 51, a former diplomat, lost his temper with a staff sergeant while waiting for the government jet to refuel at Moscow airport earlier this month. The Chancellor and his entourage were returning home from an arduous trip aimed at drumming up recruits for the international coalition against terrorism.

The plane was delayed and Mr Steiner was feeling peckish. According to the soldier, who has filed a formal complaint, Mr Steiner demanded caviar. The sergeant is said to have replied: "This is low on my list of priorities." At that point the former German special envoy to the Balkans is alleged to have resorted to using undiplomatic language.

Mr Steiner, known for his sharp wit and quick temper, said he was misunderstood. "That [comment] about the caviar was just meant as a joke," he told the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. "But if somebody feels insulted by me then I invite him to a caviar breakfast, be it in Berlin or Moscow, even if caviar isn't normally what I have for breakfast," he added.

The last clause was an important caveat, because Mr Steiner's alleged gluttony outweighs the crime of using insulting language.

The incident rekindled public disaffection with the high life led by some of Mr Schröder's "champagne socialists", just as his Social Democrat party was consulting its grassroots supporters at a conference in Nuremberg.

Mr Schröder has already lost one cabinet minister who became embroiled in a corruption scandal. Rudolf Scharping, Minister for Defence, was also under fire earlier this year for using official flights to make frequent visits to his female companion in Majorca.

Mr Steiner had himself been hanging on to his job by his fingernails after being blamed in May for a highly embarrassing leak. In a diplomatic cable that found its way from Washington to German newspapers, Mr Steiner was said to have boasted that he had extracted a confession from the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Mr Steiner is reported to have told George Bush, the American President, that Colonel Gaddafi had admitted to the Lockerbie bombing but had promised never to do it again.