Germany sends warplanes to Afghanistan

Germany will send at least six military aeroplanes and extra soldiers to Afghanistan despite public misgivings that peacekeepers are being sucked into the US-led war with the Taliban.

The lower parliamentary house, or Bundestag, voted to sent between six and eight Tornado reconnaissance jets, 500 crew and maintenance staff, adding to the around 3000 German troops already stationed in the war-torn country.

In yesterday's vote - the subject of intense political wrangling in recent weeks - several members of chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats refused to back the new mission. 405 legislators voted in favour, with 157 voting against and 11 abstaining.

The murder on Thursday in northern Afghanistan of a German aid worker added an emotional edge to yesterday's debate, although it did not appear to influence the vote's outcome. Dieter Rübling, 65, who was shot by unknown assailants, was the first German aid worker to be killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Yesterday's vote was controversial as it blurs the nature of Germany's military role in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 this has been focused on peacekeeping and reconstruction, in line with the distanced stance of politicians and the public towards the US-led military conflict with the Taliban.

Germany has repeatedly resisted calls from Nato to redeploy combat troops from their bases in Kabul and northern regions to the south, where clashes with the Taliban are most intense. The decision to send the Tornado planes is seen as a gesture towards Nato, as the planes - to operate in Afghanistan for six months from April - will seek out Taliban positions in the south and forward the information to military commanders. They will not fly combat missions.

Opposition parties and some military analysts argue that Germany has now joined the warring parties in Afghanistan, with distinctions - stressed by the government - between reconnaissance and fighting dismissed as semantic.

Eckart von Klaeden, foreign affairs spokesman for Ms Merkel's CDU admitted that Germany could not "in the long term" refuse to send combat troops to the south, where a major Nato offensive against the Taliban was launched this week.

In a rare Bundestag disruption, the parliament's president expelled for the session several members of the Left Party for unfurling anti-war banners in the debating chamber.

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