By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) – The head of Germany’s armed forces and a senior Defense Ministry official were forced to resign on Thursday over reports the military withheld details about a September 4 air strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan.
Opposition parties also called on Franz Josef Jung, defense minister at the time and now labor minister, to step down in what could become a major embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel just as she considers sending more troops to Afghanistan.
In a speech to parliament, Jung’s voice faltered as he told the Bundestag lower house what he knew about the attack, noting he had been aware of the existence of a military police report into the deaths which his critics have seized on.
“But I didn’t have any concrete knowledge of the report,” he said, prompting laughter from opposition lawmakers.
Jung said the report had been passed on to NATO and that he had informed parliament correctly throughout, adding he had never ruled out civilian casualties. He gave no indication he was about to resign.
Germany’s Bild newspaper reported on Thursday that videos and a secret military report had clearly pointed to civilian casualties at the time Jung and the military were denying them.
Asked about the air strike ahead of a parliamentary debate on the matter, Merkel stopped short of endorsing Jung, a member of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
The strike, ordered by a German commander and carried out by a U.S. F-15 fighter, was the deadliest operation involving German troops since World War Two, killing 69 Taliban fighters and 30 civilians, according to the Afghan government.
But in the days after the strike, Jung repeatedly denied there were any civilian victims.
New Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who took over from Jung last month, acknowledged the existence of the report and said he had been unaware of it until Wednesday.
Speaking in the Bundestag, Guttenberg said Wolfgang Schneiderhan, who as inspector general holds the highest military post in the German armed forces, and deputy defense minister Peter Wichert had both resigned.
“This report and others from the previous legislative period were not presented and responsibility for this has been taken at a senior level,” Guttenberg said.
At a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Merkel said she backed Guttenberg in his effort to clear up the matter and “take the necessary steps,” and expected Jung to be open about what he knew about the incident.
“I have full confidence that (Jung) will act in the same spirit, namely that responsibility in Afghanistan means full transparency,” she said.
During the Bundestag debate, television cameras repeatedly panned to show her frowning as she leant forward in her seat.
Next week, parliament is expected to renew a mandate which allows Merkel’s government to deploy up to 4,500 troops in the country, but senior officials have indicated this number could be raised early next year after a strategy review.
Germany now has about 4,250 troops in Afghanistan.
NATO allies are re-examining their presence in Afghanistan and U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce on Tuesday that he will send an additional 30,000 troops there.
The mission has become increasingly unpopular in Germany and other Western countries as violence has surged to its deadliest levels since the Taliban was forced from power in 2001.
The September strike came as a shock to the public in Germany, where opposition to military conflict runs deep more than 60 years after the Nazi defeat.
The German forces who called in the strike later described it as a pre-emptive measure to prevent a possible suicide attack by Taliban fighters who had hijacked two fuel trucks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the raid a major “error of judgment” and it was also criticized by France and Britain.
On November 6, Guttenberg became the first senior government official to admit publicly that civilians had died.