April 6, 2009 / 12:06 PM / in 10 years

Merkel visits German troops in Afghanistan

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited German troops in Afghanistan on Monday on an unannounced trip during which no political talks with Afghan leaders were planned.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with an officer of the German army Bundeswehr in Kunduz, April 6, 2009. REUTERS/Michael Kappeler/Pool

Shortly after Merkel left a German army camp in the northern province of Kunduz, attackers launched rockets towards the site, officials said. The rockets hit outside the camp and no one was injured, a spokesman for the German Defence Ministry said.

“The chancellor wants to get an impression of Germany’s military and civilian involvement in the northern region,” government spokesman Thomas Steg told a news conference.

Germany has about 3,800 troops in Afghanistan and has a parliamentary mandate to send a total of 4,500 as part of a NATO mission. But the mission is unpopular among voters, and Merkel, who faces an election in six months time, is reluctant to increase the number of German combat troops in Afghanistan.

Steg said Germany had long defended an Afghanistan strategy that did not just focus on military action but also set store on civilian reconstruction efforts, adding this approach had also won wide backing by NATO partners at a summit last week.

Merkel, accompanied by Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung, would also visit civilian projects in northern Afghanistan, but no political meetings in Kabul were planned, Steg said.

Merkel spoke by phone with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai on Sunday and informed him of talks at the NATO summit, added Steg.

U.S. President Barack Obama won NATO backing on Saturday for his new strategy for Afghanistan, which favours a regional approach with a stepped-up civilian effort and training of Afghan security forces.

But his European allies stopped short of offering long-term troop deployments. NATO members agreed to send 5,000 additional troops and trainers as reinforcements for Afghan elections and to train Afghan security forces. Germany has already announced it will send 600 additional troops.

Merkel has resisted pressure from allies to send German soldiers to the more dangerous southern areas of the country, where allied forces are battling a Taliban insurgency. Most of the German soldiers are in northern areas.

In her phone call with Karzai, Merkel also reiterated concerns about a law which critics say would legalise marital rape, Steg said.

“She made clear that the law does not conform with the government’s and her own view of equality between men and women,” Steg said.

Afghan’s Justice Ministry said earlier the law for the country’s Shi’ite minority was on hold and under review.

The chancellor would be back in Berlin in time for a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, he said, without giving further details.

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