Germans vote to send planes

STEVE CRAWSHAW

BONN

With much trepidation and after hours of sometimes poisonous debate Germany yesterday agreed a historic volte-face - allowing its armed forces to fire shots in anger for the first time in 50 years.

Yesterday's parliamentary vote - 386 in favour, 258 against - seems certain to mark only the beginning of a long and difficult road, as Germany moves towards normalisation on the international stage.

Parliament agreed German troops and planes can be sent to support the UN forces in Bosnia. It is the first time since the defeat of Hitler's army that Germans will be sent into war. The decision is seen as a traumatic turning point.

The forces on the ground will include only medical and other back-up forces. Crucially, however, Germany will also send its Tornado planes, which are able to detect and knock out hostile radar, in support of the rapid reaction force. The Tornados will be able severely to damage the Serbian capability of shooting down Nato planes.

Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, told parliament: "Germany has in the post-war era received protection and solidarity from its partners and friends, with no ifs and buts ... Now we must show solidarity." Most opposition Social Democrats (SPD) remained unconvinced. Rudolf Scharping, the SPD leader, argued that the use of German Tornados would be inappropriate, because of "the German past". He noted, too: "War in the air does not lead to peace on the ground."

The SPD has torn itself apart, recently. The leadership eventually decided to refuse backing for the use of Tornados - partly in order to occupy what it perceives as the moral high ground and partly because of fear of "the zinc coffins coming back".

Western leaders and the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, have long pressed for Germany to play a more active role. But Germany remains sharply divided. The usually sedate atmosphere of the parliament gave way to bitter and passionate exchanges. The government is accused of warmongering; the opposition is accused of turning its back on Bosnian suffering.

Senior figures in the SPDtalk privately of an "absurd" policy stand. As Karsten Voigt, the foreign policy spokesman, noted: "German Tornados could have saved the American pilot, O'Grady, from being shot down." Norbert Gansel, an SPD deputy, led a minority initiative, in which he and several dozen colleagues broke ranks, to vote with the government.

Marieluise Beck of the pacifist Greens also backed use of Tornados, noting: "Auschwitz was liberated by soldiers."

Opinion polls suggest that a majority is in favour of tougher UN action in Bosnia, but that only a minority is in favour of Germany getting involved.

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